Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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Quentin Lauer (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: Lauer, Quentin. “The Hegelian System.” In Hegel's Idea of Philosophy, pp. 1-14. New York: Fordham University Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Lauer outlines Hegel's philosophical system and provides an overview of his works.]

The Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy is particularly significant, as we have already noted in our Preface, because of the place which it holds in the overall “system” which Hegel's philosophy purports to be. What that place is can be clarified in an attempt to sketch the system as a whole, which is at once Hegel's philosophy and his reply to those who would discredit the whole metaphysical endeavor.

In an attempt to overcome the abstract speculations of both traditional Scholasticism and continental rationalism, the British empiricists in general, and Hume in particular, insisted on the primacy of the immediate presence of reality in sensation. In this context, then, thinking—as opposed to sensation—is a movement away from reality; thought is a progressive abstraction from the full, rich content immediately given in sensation. The empiricists would, of course, have been contradicting a constant in human experience did they not see a definite usefulness in this process—if nothing else, it simplified reality to the point of making it more manipulable. Still, they felt that in thought there was a definite loss of concreteness which could be regained only by a return to the immediacy which the senses guaranteed.

For Hegel, who in this was seeking to complete the endeavors of his great predecessors Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, to answer Hume, it simply was not true that the locus of concreteness was in the immediacy of reality's presence to sensation. Taking his cue from Plato rather than from Locke, he was convinced that reality was more concretely present (more real) in thought, in ideas, than in sensation. For this he needed as a starter no more than the common human experience that in seeking to grasp reality more thoroughly we consult our ideas of reality rather than reality itself. Strangely enough, he found the warrant for this conviction in the experimental sciences, whose observations of the real world were simply sterile until they had been transformed into thought. With Kant he recognized only too well that “conceptions without intuitions are empty,” but in true dialectic fashion he recognized equally well that “intuitions without conceptions are blind.” This, however, meant more to him than simply that thought and sensation are complementary: it meant that, although a content of consciousness may be given in sensation, it cannot be fully grasped in sensation but only in a process moving from an initial minimal awareness to the (ideal) totality of awareness in complete rational knowledge; it meant, too, that the process of thinking is no more than an empty game, if it clings to its initial abstractness and is not characterized by a progressively more concrete manifestation of its content—which is ultimately (again ideally) the totality of reality. The totality of awareness, then, which he calls “knowledge” (Wissen) or “science” (Wissenschaft), is the awareness of a totality of reality; and this involves a realization that man will find the very reality of reality only in the awareness of reality which is at the same time reality's progressive self-manifestation.

The heart of Hegel's system, then, is his Logic, where philosophical thinking seeks to penetrate thought and find in it the revelation of reality. He himself characterized this Logic as “the presentation of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of the world or of a single finite spirit,”1

(This entire section contains 3942 words.)

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1 which is but another way of saying that the totality of thought does not wait upon the unfolding of human history in order to be identified with the totality of reality—even though man's awareness of this identification cannot be achieved independently of the historical process of developing consciousness. It is true enough to say that reality is truly real only when it is thought-reality; but it is equally true that thought is truly thought only as a process of coming to terms with the real. It is for this reason that, while contemplating the articulation of his monumental Logic as the cornerstone of his system, Hegel realized that it would be impossible to plunge into the depths of thought, there to find reality, without prefacing his effort with an account of the process whereby awareness becomes thought in the fullest sense of that term. Thus, the overall structure had to wait until its foundation could be laid in a Phenomenology of Spirit which would describe the route that consciousness takes through history in coming to the awareness that as Spirit2 it could legitimately look into itself in order to find reality.3

Once its foundation was made secure in the Phenomenology, the most systematic of philosophical systems could begin to take shape (even though prior to the Phenomenology Hegel had already drafted more than one blueprint for the total structure). The Logic now becomes the articulation of an awareness that the categories of thought reveal themselves as the categories of reality. The progressive awareness of itself that Spirit achieves through history will be a gradual revelation of all that was there from eternity—“before creation”—but a condition for Spirit's recognizing all this in itself is that it first go outside itself, in order to return to itself enriched by the knowledge that all that “out there” is its own work. It goes out of itself, then, in a “philosophy of nature” (which, although it is admittedly not Hegel's strong point, does show that he had a penetrating awareness of the significance of the natural science of his day). Its point was to manifest that in nature was to be found a purposeful order which indicates that nature itself is the embodiment of ideas and that, thus, nature reveals itself as the work of Spirit. Science is successful because, as Kant had noted, it can compel nature to yield up answers to its questions, and these answers belong to the world of ideas.

What Spirit seeks in nature, however, are not merely answers to its questions about nature but also answers to its questions about itself. These answers, too, it will find in ideas, not insofar as nature with its laws constitutes the content of those ideas but insofar as the having of ideas reveals the nature, so to speak, of spirit. Thus begins Hegel's philosophy of spirit.

At first it is the philosophy of subjective spirit, which, we might say, tells us what man is capable of because he is spirit and not merely nature. In this there are three stages: (a) anthropology, wherein man discovers the sort of being he is, his nature; (b) phenomenology (not to be confused with the preface to the whole system), in which man examines his capacity to be conscious both of external reality and of himself; and (c) psychology, in which man sees himself as a subject determining himself by his own spiritual activities, at the summit of which is free activity. It is precisely this last sort of activity which provides the transition to the second step in the philosophy of spirit—i.e., philosophy of objective spirit—which concerns itself with what is true of man, precisely because he is free, not merely acting and reacting but self-determining, in the sense that he determines himself to be a self. This philosophy of objective spirit, too, presents itself in three stages: (a) individual man as person, who is characterized by rights, chiefly the right to own that which is not himself; (b) the individual person as self determining to moral behavior (Moralität), which is a self-imposed limitation on his subjective willing; and (c) the person not merely as individual but as member of society—family, city, and state—whose free will is oriented toward a higher morality (Sittlichkeit) which governs the society as a society.4

Only when man, the free spirit, has been established both as an individual and as a member of society, is it possible to proceed to a third stage in the philosophy of spirit, which Hegel calls the philosophy of Absolute Spirit. This concerns itself not so much with what any individual man is, can do, or does, but with what man (or mankind) has produced by virtue of the fact that man is a free spirit who can act upon nature, on himself, or on other men, thus not only transforming the world in which he lives but also revealing all that man as such is capable of—the seal of man is, so to speak, put upon all that man does. This last stage in the philosophy of spirit constitutes the quantitatively major portion of the legacy Hegel has bequeathed to posterity (although, paradoxically enough, very little of it was published by Hegel himself—the courses he gave were transcribed by students and ultimately published posthumously). The outline for this is provided by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit, where he seeks to show that the ultimate in rationality is to be found in the relationship of the absolute Spirit to the absolute Idea. It is as absolute Spirit that consciousness reaches its apogee on the subjective side, and it is with the absolute Idea that the objective content—i.e., “the whole of reality”—adequately corresponds with its subjective conceiving, and Spirit is revealed as both subject and object in this ultimate synthesis. As the whole movement of the Phenomenology had revealed, content precedes form, in the sense that consciousness is constantly being impelled to catch up with, become adequate to, its own content. Thus, the content of Spirit's consciousness is absolute before Spirit's grasp of this content is itself absolute, and the stages through which man's spirit goes in approaching this adequacy are the three stages of man's activity whereby he relates himself to the Absolute—i.e., art, religion, and philosophy.


If at this point we go back over the whole corpus of Hegel's writings we find that they fit not only neatly but also convincingly into this systematically articulated structure. We have already seen the place of the Phenomenology of Spirit and of the Logic. The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences is an attempt to describe the entire structure. Hegel never did develop a philosophy of nature—the only hint of what it might have been is contained in the Encyclopedia under that heading.5 By the same token the philosophy of subjective spirit is—with the exception of the Phenomenology—nowhere explicitly developed by Hegel (although, as we shall see, there are both anthropological and psychological implications throughout his writings). Under the heading of philosophy of objective spirit come not only his Philosophy of Right, the last of his works published during his own lifetime, but also the many political writings which have contributed so much to modern constitutional theory. There is, of course, no difficulty in situating either his Lectures on the Philosophy of Art (better known as Aesthetics) or the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion along with the sixteen lectures on the proofs for the existence of God. Under the same heading of philosophy of religion we can also place his Early Theological Writings which, apparently, he never intended to publish. We have difficulty in placing only the Philosophy of History and the Lectures on the History of Philosophy. The former, it seems safe to say, could well fit under the philosophy of objective spirit. To situate the latter demands a bit of conjecture.

When, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel elaborates the three stages of consciousness of the absolute, he is careful to point out that the absolute of which spirit is conscious is one and the same throughout. What differs is the form of consciousness. In art the absolute is present to consciousness in sensible form; in religion the form is representation (Vorstellung, which may be translated “imaginative representation,” provided the term “imaginative” is not construed too narrowly); and in philosophy the form is thought, the only form of consciousness which is itself absolute. Now, it is not without significance that, in his teaching, Hegel developed a philosophy of art and a philosophy of religion; but nowhere does he present a philosophy of philosophy. It might, of course, be argued that the system in its entirety is precisely that, but it might also be pointed out that not only did he work out nine distinct courses on the history of philosophy but also in those courses he tells us exactly what philosophy is in a way he does not do elsewhere. It is precisely in and through its history that we see what philosophy is. On this interpretation, then, the history of philosophy would be the philosophy of philosophy, the coping stone of the philosophy of absolute spirit and of the whole Hegelian system. If nothing else, such an interpretation makes the Introduction to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy much more intelligible


Before following out the indications given in this interpretation and thus attempting to make the Introduction more intelligible, let us say a word about the individual philosopher, who is, after all, the channel through which philosophy is transmitted. If philosophy has a history it is only because there have been philosophers who stand, as it were, as milestones along the path of human thought, revealing not only the distance that thought has traveled but also the direction in which it is traveling. It should be noted, however, that, although the name “philosophy” has been reserved for that which is pre-eminently a rational discipline, and although history has accorded the title “philosopher” only to those who have contributed to the rational elaboration of human experience, it is also true that the greatness of the great philosophers who “make” philosophy's history does not rest solely on the inner consistency or on the convincing power of such rational elaborations. Rather their greatness consists (as does that of the great artist or great religious genius) in the quality of their experience, in the capacity of this experience to reveal in a new way the possibilities of human experience. The philosopher's formulations of that experience, then, are precisely the provisional in his contribution, even though they do serve to point up the significance of the experience which he has elaborated and through which he leaves his mark on the experience of those who come after him. Although we cannot minimize our admiration for the rational structures they have bequeathed to us, the influence of a Plato or an Aristotle, a Kant or a Hegel, even of a Whitehead or a Dewey, is the result not of the perfection of these structures but of the profundity of an experience which a combination of philosophical genius and hard work has made possible and which the lucidity and power of their elaboration have enabled them to communicate. The great philosopher's experience, in its turn, is not significant simply because it is experience—as though experience infallibly delivered insight into the real—but because it is the experience of genius, a sort of witness to the capacity of human experience at its best. Thus, it would seem, we can say that each great philosopher has so experienced that his experience in a very special way both belongs to and helps constitute the sum-total of human experience. To the extent that this experience is philosophical, philosophy itself lives on in it.

It would be futile to attempt in a few lines or, for that matter, in a whole book to recapture the Hegelian philosophical experience, but we can begin doing so by pointing out that it was characterized first of all by an extraordinary confidence in reason. This confidence is opposed explicitly—and rather obviously—to the “romantic” glorification of emotion and intuition, which Hegel constantly characterized as an unwarranted short cut to knowledge. The absolute, he was sure, could be known in human thought, but only a systematic adherence to methodical thinking could make it known. Quite as explicitly but not so obviously, Hegel's confidence in reason was opposed to the sentimental rationalism of the “Enlightenment,” which first deified reason and then knelt down in adoration of its own creation, without asking whether this was truly reason or merely non-faith, non-authority, non-tradition. This confidence was not, finally, the confidence of a Kant or a Fichte, a confidence which Hegel admired and even shared, but which, he thought, did not go far enough, since it handed over to a kind of faith the ultimate concerns of human living and confined reason to mundane considerations, thus settling for a reason that is not truly reason.

Hegel's was rather the confidence of a Plato, an Aristotle, or a Spinoza, who saw rational thought as that which in the highest degree characterizes man as man and which should, therefore, characterize man when he is concerned with that which is of the highest interest to him. Like Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza, he saw reason as infallible, in the sense that what reason saw to be true could not be other than true; and, again like them, he saw reason as absolutely one, so that what any human reason saw to be necessarily true had to be true for any other reason which was truly reason. Had he gone no further than this, however, Hegel would have involved himself in the deceptive tautology of defining reason as thought functioning in such a way that what it affirmed had to be true, because if what was affirmed were not true it would not be reason that affirmed it. This would be to guarantee truth by an appeal to reason and at the same time to guarantee reason by an appeal to the truth of its affirmations. Kant had recognized this dilemma and had, therefore, instituted a “critique” of reason which would lay down the conditions for reason functioning as reason. In Hegel's eyes, however, this was equivalent either to using something other than reason to set down the rules of reason—like learning to swim before jumping into the water—or using reason to formulate a set of rules to validate its formulating these rules. The remedy for this was, as we saw in our account of the Phenomenology of Spirit, to follow consciousness from its first act of minimal awareness which had to be true, because it affirmed no more than that it was awareness, through all the successive purifications which were forced upon it by its own realization that it was not adequate to the implications of its very awareness, until it reached a form of awareness which was adequate to its content—i.e., the absolute. The result of this process was absolute reason, the function of absolute Spirit, and its thinking was philosophy. What Hegel seeks to do, then, is not to formulate the rules which would certify that thought is proceeding rationally, as Aristotle does in his logic, or to determine the conditions which must be fulfilled if reason is to be operative, as Kant does in his critiques, but to follow human consciousness until it reaches a level beyond which it cannot and need not go.6 To call this reason—or, better still, spirit as the fullness of reason—is simply to say that reason is thought at its very highest and best. This is the reason which can justifiably look into itself in order to see what is true, and what reason does at this high level is philosophy. Reasoning is the highest form of experience, and the highest form of reasoning is philosophy.

It would, of course, be saying too much to claim that each philosopher—even each “great” philosopher—in history has come up with a philosophy which corresponds with this exalted Hegelian notion of philosophy. Nor does Hegel make such a claim; strictly speaking, he does not even make that claim for his own philosophy. What inevitably forces itself on us when we read Hegel carefully and consistently is a conviction that reason itself must constantly recognize that it is not rational enough, that it is rational only to the extent that it becomes more rational, that being rational is a process which no philosophy exhausts. Reason is truly reason when it is not merely reason, when it becomes spirit; and spirit is inexhaustible, infinite. What Hegel does claim, then, is to have delineated the character of genuinely philosophical thinking and to have been able to trace a history in which this ideal is the guiding thread permitting him to situate the thought of individual thinkers, or of “schools,” in the overall movement. It was with a view to making this claim intelligible that the Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy was written.


  1. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, ed. Georg Lasson (Hamburg: Meiner, 1934), Vol. I, p. 31. English translation by A. V. Miller (London: Unwin, 1969), p. 50.

  2. Throughout this discussion and in the translation of Hegel's text it is inevitable that there will be a certain amount of arbitrariness in capitalizing or not capitalizing the term “spirit” (Geist). The German text, of course, offers no help whatever. Thus, each time the term occurs, a decision must be made, based on the context, about the meaning which Hegel intends. “Spirit” has, it would seem, at least five possible meanings (or connotations). (1) Absolute Spirit, which is the overall personalized Spirit which reveals itself progressively in the history of thinking in all its forms. It is, of course, debatable whether this Spirit should be identified with God, but the contrast noted above between “God” and “finite spirit” would seem to indicate that “Absolute Spirit” is infinite and, thus, scarcely distinguishable from God. (2) Each human individual, realized as what he most truly is, is “spirit” (participating, so to speak, in “Spirit”). (3) The “spirit” of a people or of an age, which is a sort of common source of collective activity. (4) “Spirit” is used as a sort of universal term, of which the other uses are instantiations. (5) There are instances when the term seems to combine all four of the above meanings. When the meaning is clearly the first or when it seems to be the fifth, the term will be capitalized. In all other occurrences it will not be capitalized.

  3. The Phenomenology of Spirit (rather unfortunately translated Phenomenology of Mind) is Hegel's attempt to trace the process of experience from mere sensation to absolute knowing and, thus, to show that the movement toward knowing is one of progressive concretization. The Logic which follows upon this, then, is a logic of concrete thought.

  4. There is an apparent conflict between the relationship of Moralität and Sittlichkeit here (the schema comes from the description of the whole system contained in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences) and that described in the Phenomenology. In the latter, Sittlichkeit is a somewhat vaguer stage leading up to the more conscious Moralität. Whatever conflict there may be, however, is one of terms rather than of concepts. Sittlichkeit simply does not have the same meaning in the two contexts.

  5. With the publication, in 1923, of Hegel's Jenenser Logik Metaphysik und Naturphilosophie (2nd ed.; Hamburg: Meiner, 1957), of course, we have further manuscript evidence of how he developed a “philosophy of nature” (pp. 187-359), but even that is little more than a sketch.

  6. When consciousness—or thought—has reached this “level,” we might say, it has discovered that there are no more pertinent questions to be asked. Strictly speaking, however, short of the totality of knowledge there are always pertinent questions still to be asked.

James A. Doull (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Doull, James A. “Hegel's Philosophy of Nature.” Dialogue 11, no. 3 (1972): 379-99.

[In the following essay, Doull reviews two translations of The Philosophy of Nature that were published in 1970.]


Two translations into English of Hegel's Philosophy of Nature1,2 have appeared in the same year a century after the other parts of the Encyclopaedia—the Logic and the Philosophy of Mind—had been translated. The Victorian translator passed by the Philosophy of Nature, unconscious that to omit the middle part of a systematic work must certainly conceal the sense of the whole. He finds it a sufficient explanation that “for nearly half a century the study of nature has passed almost completely out of the hands of the philosophers into the care of the specialists of science.” Revived for a few years by Schelling and then Hegel, Philosophy of Nature only recalled “a time of hasty enthusiasms and over-grasping ambition of thought which, in its eagerness to understand the mystery of the universe, jumped to conclusions on insufficient grounds, trusted to bold but fantastic analogies, and lavished an unwise contempt on the plodding industry of the mere hodman of facts and experiments.” This modest retreat of philosophy before the specialists is not thought to need explanation, even though it was not only from the seeming extravagance of Schelling and Hegel but from the general preoccupation of philosophers since Bacon and Descartes with natural philosophy.3

The translator was in a way open to the thought that “calmer retrospection will perhaps modify this verdict, and sift the various contributions (towards a philosophical unity of the sciences) which are now indiscriminately damned by the title of Naturphilosophie.” But he is rather aware of “amazing paradox and perplexing analogies”, and that anyway all that is important is a general opposition of irrational nature and human rationality in which Hegel and Schopenhauer are at one. Hegel and Schopenhauer at one in their attitude to nature! What is true is that the Victorian ‘Hegelians’ could make nothing of the differences. For they took the Hegelian philosophy to teach an immediate unity of the natural and irrational with thought—a kind of Spinozism in which however the unity of the attributes had the form of self-consciousness. The Philosophy of Nature was a closed book to them because they did not have the distance from nature which permitted Hegel to see nature itself as not only irrational but as a unity of ends in the manner of Plato's ‘intelligible animal’. This rational aspect of nature being for the Victorians in man and what man could in the sure progress of the race make of nature, Philosophy of Nature could hardly but seem an inquiry which, if possible at all, should certainly await the greater perfection of the sciences.4

That the Philosophy of Nature has at last been translated for English readers could mean no more than that the industry of scholars, having edited, translated, interpreted countless forgotten and minor works in recent years has turned to this remarkable but incomprehensible work. But it is perhaps cause for wonder that within a year the translation by A. V. Miller appears in paperback, evidently in response to a more than negligible popular interest. An interest among scholars, hardly less surprising, is shown when recently the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science collaborated with the Hegel Society of America in a widely attended conference on “Hegel and the Sciences”.5 Hegel has been found to have something to say about nature to those in flight from “European nihilism” “to some earlier” and more modest attitude to nature. For it is possible to read the Philosophy of Nature as very much a renewed Platonism; and if in this Platonism rather the ‘cave’ than an accomplished liberation from it be emphasized, then Hegel is close to a common or even prevalent contemporary mood. At the same time he begins to receive attention from those who on the side of science and technology are perplexed as to what method there is, if any, to scientific inquiry. For if Hegel is right in thinking that the modern sciences became possible through the Cartesian philosophy, as bringing to light the unity of logic and experience at the point of their extreme opposition, then the more direct mixture of formal logic and fact sought in this century must in the end disclose their incompatibility and turn attention again to older methods.6


It is regrettable that the labours of Miller and Petry were not combined into one annotated translation. What we have instead is an excellent translation without notes and the extensive annotation of an unreliable and often unreadable translation. “It was our intention”, writes J. N. Findlay in his foreword to the Miller translation, “to supplement the present volume with a volume of notes in which the scientific interpretation and historical background of Hegel's treatment of nature would be given, and it would be made plain how deeply informed he was on all matters scientific, and how remote from the prejudiced picture of him as a merely a priori thinker. Circumstances of an extremely unfortunate character have, however, made it impossible for us to carry out this part of our task …”.7

Both translations are of the Philosophy of Nature as contained in the third (1830) edition of the Encyclopaedia together with the Zusätze or additions put together after Hegel's death by C. L. Michelet from surviving records of his lectures. Hegel lectured on the Encyclopaedia proper, explaining and illustrating sometimes in a very full and detailed way the extremely compact sections of his text. Style and content are very different between the lectures and the text. The latter refers very little, essentially not at all, to anything outside the logical development of the argument. The Zusätze on the contrary refer extensively to the researches of contemporary and earlier scientists. The text is intended to be intelligible by itself. But for it to become intelligible one must have followed two divergent routes: the one the study of Hegelian logic, the other a careful attention to the natural sciences simply as they are for the scientists. What is then sought is to show that in all the sciences there are difficulties of a logical order—an inadequacy of method to experience—such as have their solution only in the recognition that the Hegelian logic is the logic of nature. To assist his students to this insight Hegel in his lectures reported and discussed the work of scientists sufficiently to illustrate this logical transformation.

Reasonably therefore Professor Findlay goes on to say that “we believe none the less that Hegel can be allowed to speak for himself, and that the purport of his scientific views, and the wealth and depth of his empiricism (as one facet of his philosophical habit) will come clearly through.” For the reader with some sense for the Hegelian philosophy and a general knowledge of the sciences will make his way through the Philosophy of Nature not much worse off for the lack of a historical commentary. It may indeed be to the good if in his ignorance he sometimes relates Hegel's argument directly to a more developed stage of the sciences.

The difficulties of the work, which are very great, are principally logical and of the Hegelian system generally. “If … we are not intimately acquainted with early nineteenth century knowledge, it will often be difficult for us to appreciate the significance of his work. If we do manage to overcome this handicap however, we shall soon discover that the judgements involved in the selections he makes are never unworthy of serious consideration. Able and accomplished though they invariably are however, they are necessarily based upon the subject matter available to him, and even the major transitions of the ‘Encyclopaedia’ are therefore open to revision.”8 Petry in these remarks has missed entirely the sense of the Philosophy of Nature. What is hard is to discover a stable logical structure in the ever changing empirical knowledge—such as is not purely formal and indifferent to the content.

Petry can indeed write of the Encyclopaedia that “it is the masterly manner in which it enables one to assess knowledge which constitutes its main originality and primary value.” But of what this means his idea is vague and most unhegelian. A lengthy introduction in which he attempts a philosophical appraisal of the Naturphilosphie is the most unfortunate part of his work. Hegel, it appears, is an encyclopaedist of the same family as Diderot or the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but in place of an alphabetical arrangement he has discovered a logical structure of “levels, hierarchies and spheres” by which to arrange his material. This structure, Platonic in origin, became in the middle ages ‘the great chain of being’ by which a graded approximation of the finite to an infinite ideal could be understood. Obscured in the modern age, this scheme (he explains) was restored by Hegel in the form of a series of progressions from the simpler to the more complex and then to a concrete totality. Lost in the theology and poetry of the eighteenth century, this ancient hierarchic principle was rediscovered empirically in the natural sciences. As extended systematically by Hegel to all forms of natural and spiritual being, this method sufficed to establish the Trinity of Christian belief on the firm basis of natural science. Hegel becomes an amalgam of Newton and Jacob Boehme, one who sees teleology everywhere breaking through Newtonian science.9

An abstract method indifferent to the content, which would be simply the current state of the sciences, is as far as possible from Hegel's intention. The sciences were themselves beyond this indefiniteness. In his own time Schelling had given Philosophy of Nature a bad name by such a formalism. Thereby it had been “perverted into a thoughtless instrument for superficial thinking and fanciful imagination.” “It is … not to be wondered at that a more thoughtful examination of Nature, as well as crude empiricism, a knowledge led by the Idea, as well as the external, abstract Understanding, alike turned their backs on a procedure which was as fantastic as it was pretentious, which itself made a chaotic mixture of crude empiricism and uncomprehended thoughts, of a purely capricious exercise of the imagination and the most commonplace way of reasoning by superficial analogy, …”.10

Nor would Hegel think it any cure to eschew the wilder flights of fancy and hold soberly to the facts. For it is only free imagination that makes this abstract Naturphilosophie other than the sciences themselves. Scientists also, Hegel would think, do and must exercise imagination, but its productions have a criterion in the ‘abstract understanding’. In an earlier age a formal thinking of this kind did indeed provide the basis for a rational consideration of religion. But Hegel thought its time was past: it was “a barbarous philosophy of the understanding, which awakens in us no true interest and to which we cannot return”. If Jacob Boehme interested him it was that, though more barbarous still, a concrete subjectivity was breaking through. But this—the principle of his own philosophy—he thought was only to be freed of its wildness when seen as resulting from the hard rationalism of Descartes and Kant.11

There being nothing philosophical in it, the hundred pages and more Petry gives to a general interpretation of Hegel and particularly of the Naturphilosophie do not need comment, unless to deplore the tone in which he puts aside dissentient views. The following is a rather strong example:

There is indeed no commoner evidence of the complete misinterpretation of Hegelianism than that provided by those who, though evidently ignorant of both the origin and the import of the ‘Phenomenology’, persist in proclaiming its merits … Most of the ridicule to which these would-be Hegelians have been justly submitted has its origin in a very healthy awareness of what is ostensibly ludicrous in this work, and in the shrewd suspicion that those claiming to have found a bottom to it are themselves somniloquent.12

At the same time Mr. Petry is a man of extensive learning. Also about the Hegelian philosophy he would appear to be widely read. But polymathy does not make a philosopher, and to be useful philosophically it needs direction. Of a number of valuable commentaries that might be written on the Philosophy of Nature Mr. Petry was obviously well qualified to write the purely historical. At the present time that commentary is likely the most useful, as giving readers the information they will usually lack about the sciences of the time and as making the writing of more philosophical commentaries easier. For however desirable it would be to see the logical relation of Hegel's work to the logic of the sciences, then and since, explicated in a full commentary, or again the philosophical antecedents of his work examined fully, these commentaries should probably await a better state of Hegelian studies.

Petry's commentary is at its best, and very useful, where it is simply philological. It gives abundant information about the scientists whose work Hegel discusses, cites relevant passages from their works, reports more generally the state of scientific opinion, guides the reader to the scientific literature of the time. Its faults, taken in this narrower sense, are a lack of judgment in the selection of material and a pedantic affection for curious and irrelevant facts. A page or more may be given to the biography of scientists whom Hegel mentions on a small point. Perhaps a hundred pages of his commentary is given to biographical information neither relevant to the argument nor mostly hard to obtain. Nor can Petry refrain from telling us, for example, that the tree whose apple inspired Newton was “an old variety of cooking apple called the ‘Flower of Kent’: the apples are flavourless, red streaked with yellow and green, and shaped much like a pear.” Or if antiquarian detail of this kind belongs perhaps to the pleasure of reading old science, it is unrestrained pedantry when at the comparison of a natural process with the abrupt birth of Athena from the head of Zeus the author indulges in a mythological note of nearly a page on Athena in art. The space of all this would much better have been given to more and longer extracts from the scientists.13

To some extent Petry attempts to explain Hegel's interpretation and criticism of scientific views and to estimate how he would have revised his conclusions had he been acquainted with more recent science. This is a difficult and treacherous task, and supposes a very different understanding of Hegel's method than Petry possesses. For example, on section 349, which treats of the essential difference between plant and animal life, he comments as follows:

This transition from the vegetable organism to the animal organism would appear to be highly unsatisfactory. Hegel was never able to formulate it very clearly, and the differences between his successive attempts to do so show that he was aware of the inadequacy of his exposition. In the lectures of 1803-4 … he fastened upon the significance of the fruit, in those of 1805-6 he concentrated upon the leaf … and in the Heidelberg Encyclopaedia (1817) … he drew attention to the generic process of the plant. … His transition from the animal organism to subjective spirit by means of the sex-relationship, zoology, disease and death (sections 367-377) is much more successful, and he would undoubtedly have paralleled it at this juncture had he known that the subject-matter was tractable. Unicellular vegetable organisms such as Schizomycetes (Bacteria), several important forms of which were known to O. F. Müller as early as 1773, could have provided him with a very neat transition to the unicellular Protozoa which he knew as ‘Infusoria’.14

This is methodologically barbarous. The seeming fluctuation in Hegel's views says nothing about the stability, let alone the meaning, of his final position. Again, to argue analogically from animal to plant life is in the manner of Schelling, whose abstract method of natural philosophy Petry, quite unaware of it, takes throughout for Hegel's. A criticism that would touch Hegel's argument must begin with its intrinsic logic and must know the difference between dialectic and “neat transitions”.

Petry is indeed satisfied that Hegel's method, as he sees it, is sound and that it was generally well applied to the sciences as they then were. But in defending he distorts the intention of his author no less than in correcting. For example, he is at pains to show that Hegel's notorious criticism of Newton on universal gravitation is both reasonable and in the direction of Einstein's relativity. To state only the chief point, Hegel saw in Kepler's laws an objective expression of planetary motion where neither mathematical nor hypothetical physical entities (forces) got in the way of physical realities. Newton gave to these same laws an equivalent mathematical expression, as was proper and necessary for scientific purposes. Later mathematicians gave a purely analytical proof of the laws, thus removing the apparatus of lines and triangles belonging to Newton's fluxions. Between Newton and Kepler there then remained only the difference of mathematics from physics. Petry comments:

Hegel recognizes that the law of gravitation embodies the most comprehensive generalization the science of his day could make about simply material bodies. … He takes the solar system to involve still more comprehensive generalizations (Kepler's laws) on account of the particularity of its component bodies and the complexity of their motions …

Hegel, however, has said just the opposite:

The only difference to be seen is that what Kepler, in a simple and sublime manner, enunciated as laws of celestial motion, Newton converted into the reflective form of force of gravity and into the form of this force as it yields the law of magnitude in the motion of a falling body …

Petry, attending to the last clause and not to what preceded it, overlooks the extraordinary claim that Kepler's laws represent, as Spinoza might say, an adequate idea of nature as mechanical. The difference between Newton's method and the concrete sense of nature Hegel praises in Kepler must fall outside Petry's abstract view of the matter. But the whole interest of the Naturphilosophie is in the logic of such reinterpretations of science.15


The various problems of translating Hegel into English have been solved better by A. V. Miller than by any other translator. What is sought, it is obvious, in the translation of a philosopher is that the form of his thought should come through readably but with the least imposition of other forms. To know what the original says is the first difficulty, the other to find a natural English to say what is perhaps not naturally said in English. Technical dictionaries and the other philological apparatus are useful, but do not take one near to solving either difficulty.

“In this translation”, writes Petry, “some attempt has been made to reproduce the subtlety and consistency with which Hegel employs his philosophical terminology. It has to be admitted, however, that a completely satisfactory rendering of this aspect of his language cannot be forthcoming until more of his works have been translated in the light of recent German scholarship, and extensive cross-referencing has become possible.”16 What is missed in such a comment is that Hegel's terminology, just because it is thoroughly systematic, is intelligible directly in a given passage to one who is at home with it. Externally considered, profoundly systematic writers like Hegel and Aristotle are strictly incomprehensible. When a laborious German someday makes for Hegel the equivalent of Bonitz' Index Aristotelicus, it will be a useful instrument, but by itself will do nothing to improve the quality of translations.

Scientific terminology is of course another matter. It is of an endless and shifting complexity, and to know it in detail for Hegel's time one must turn to forgotten technical dictionaries, which Petry lists (German with their English equivalents). Hegel is, however, concerned with the most general concepts of the sciences and in observation and experiment as related to them. This is the stable structure of the sciences, which in their further progress has rather been buried in the accumulation of information than substantially altered. It turns out therefore that old scientific terminology as it occurs in the Philosophy of Nature is only here and there, and in detail, a serious obstacle to the reader or to the translator. The reader will have rather the experience in reading Hegel that for the first time he knows the meaning of scientific terminology long familiar to him.

By the use of different type Petry distinguishes in his translation passages from the 1817 edition of the Encyclopaedia which were reproduced in the 1830 edition from those first printed in 1827 or 1830. And by the same device he separates in the Zusätze what belongs to the Berlin period (1819-1830) from what goes back to the Jena lectures of 1805-1806. The resulting mixture on the same page of larger and smaller, thicker and thinner type is highly disagreeable to behold, and useless towards following the argument. “The Juvenilia of Berne and Frankfurt have been studied exhaustively for very many decades, and have thrown very little light on any major notion or position in Hegel's mature work: … Hegel … matured overnight from the (to my mind) rather dreary lucubrations of his years of tutorship to the astounding writings of the Jena period. … There is undoubtedly development in the passage from these writings to the later mature works, but not the work of causally explanatory, psychological development which those who have devoted attention to the Juvenilia seem to have been looking for”.17 These words of J. N. Findlay leave little to be said about the genetic study of Hegel.

The translator of Hegel, if he would be accurate, has to retain the dialectical structure of the sentences; if he retains it, he will not produce easily readable English. For what gives Hegel the reputation of being unintelligible is that his style in strictly philosophical passages closely reflects the dialectical structure of his thought. He includes in his statement of something what are usually seen as different and opposed views about it. A very striking example is his statement of the concept of light, in which the corpuscular and wave theories appear, but only to be at once negated as separate: “As the abstract self of matter, light is absolutely weightless, and as matter, it is an infinite self-externality; but as pure making manifest, as material ideality, it is inseparable and simple self-externality” (section 276). So Miller translates, in no way weakening or disguising the contradiction of saying that light is pure form and pure matter, and both undividedly. The translator is tempted to alter the sentence structure, and with it the logical form, in the interest of intelligibility. The likely result is to put nonsense in place of what is, if only by its own logic, clear and precise. Thus in the sentence just quoted the last clause is intended to bring the predicates of light given in the earlier clauses together in a predicate no longer divided from the subject. Petry, treating the last clause as simply third in a series, destroys the tension and the sense:

As the abstract self of matter, light is absolute levity, and as matter, it is infinite self-externality. It is this as pure manifestation and material ideality however, in the self-externality of which it is simple and indivisible.18

The weakness of the Petry translation is partly sheer blunders, which not infrequently destroy the sense in important passages; partly, as indicated, disregard for the logical structure of a passage; partly a flat and inelegant English. The following example will illustrate sufficiently:

The universality, in the face of which the animal as a singularity is a finite existence, shows itself in the animal as the abstract power in the passing out of that which, in its preceding process (section 356), is itself abstract. The original disease of the animal, and the inborn germ of death, is its being inadequate to universality. The annulment of this inadequacy is in itself the full maturing of this germ, and it is by imagining the universality of its singularity, that the individual effects this annulment. By this however, and in so far as the universality is abstract and immediate, the individual only achieves an abstract objectivity. Within this objectivity, the activity of the individual has blunted and ossified itself, and life has become a habitude devoid of process, the individual having therefore put an end to itself of its own accord.

The same passage (section 375), in which Hegel explains why animals invariably die, becomes for Miller the following:

The universality which makes the animal, as a singular, a finite existence, reveals itself in it as the abstract power which terminates the internal process active within the animal, a process which is itself abstract (section 356). The disparity between its finitude and universality is the original disease and the inborn germ of death, and the removal of this disparity is itself the accomplishment of this destiny. The individual removes this disparity in giving its singularity the form of universality; but in so far as this universality is abstract and immediate, the individual achieves only an abstract objectivity in which its activity has become deadened and ossified and the process of life has become the inertia of habit; it is in this way that the animal brings about its own destruction.

This is not only good English but also as close as possible to the German. The reader has only the difficulties of the concept which is being expressed. The other version, besides its heavy style, contains arbitrary changes of order; omits to translate the not unimportant word ‘Schicksal’, or ‘destiny’; gives for ‘einbildet’ the here meaningless translation ‘imagines’.19


In a foreword to Miller's translation and more amply in other writings, J. N. Findlay has drawn attention to “one of the great unread masterpieces of philosophy” and done much to make its argument accessible to a modern reader. He has dissipated the old myth of a Hegel ignorant and contemptuous of the sciences and their plodding methods and given him a place with Aristotle as “one of the great philosophical interpreters of nature, as steeped in its detail as he is audacious in his treatment of it.20

Professor Findlay's writings on the Philosophy of Nature and on the Hegelian philosophy generally have the freshness and interest that they lead to Hegel from contemporary questions. Hegel is shown to be surprisingly illuminating about the logic of empirical inquiry at a level where neither mathematical nor linguistic methods are of any help. Where one is otherwise left with an abstract logic, determining nothing about the world, or else the endless indeterminacy of the empirical, Hegel makes intelligible what one means by such concepts as substance, cause, natural genera, life, nature generally, a great many others by which the various inquiries have their special character and methods and cohere into one world. In this way Hegelian absolutism is presented as the alternative to “the absolutistic non-absolutism which prevails in modern philosophy.”21

Between his alternatives Findlay does not choose, knowing what makes one and the other attractive and credible. Instead he would bring the two together in a “Neo-Neo-Platonism.” Towards this his method, though he does not appear to state it so precisely, is that of the ancient Sceptics. For the original Neoplatonism, if one follows Hegel's account of the matter, only made explicit the principle, viz. self-consciousness, by which the Sceptics could maintain for themselves an “absolutistic non-absolutism” or a world endlessly contingent. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that, if the sceptical implications of modern philosophy were as definitely recognized and given logical form, a similar transition would follow to an absolutism Platonic in character. This rational direction would at any rate seem equally well founded in contemporary life with the absolutistic course of a Heidegger away from this tradition. The Hegel whom Findlay finds susceptible of this Neoplatonic conversion is already set in the context of ancient philosophy. The Hegelian philosophy is “a carrying to the limit of an immanent, Aristotelian teleology.” The “central Hegelian concept, that of the Begriff or Notion … is simply the Form of Aristotle conceived as a final cause which is also the full actuality and the achieved goodness of a thing.” It differs from the Form “in that the individual, as well as the genus and the species, is part of it.” For this reason it may be assimilated to the Platonic Idea, since in this the unity of individual and universal was, by Findlay's account of the matter, more definitely shown. From the modern world and the German philosophy of his time Hegel indeed brought to Platonism “the Kantian interest in the empirical, and the Fichtean interest in the concretely moral, and the Schellingian interest in the natural.” But to return and become Plato's greatest successor Hegel had also to emancipate himself “from the subjectivism of Kant and Fichte and from the darkly neutralistic Spinozism of Schelling.”22

This Platonic Hegel is at no great distance from dialectical materialism, had Marx and Engels only worked out more competently the idea of a classless world society. Nor again is it far from Darwinism, but rather makes it philosophically intelligible. “Hegel, as careful students will know, only made use of his dialectic to establish a vastly enriched humanism and this-worldism in which das Jenseitige … is brought wholly within the compass of human experience, so that human rationality when raised to the fully self-conscious forms of art, religion and philosophy, simply becomes the all explanatory raison d'être of everything.” In relation to nature the sense of this philosophy is evolutionary: “One may … very much regret that palaeontological study had not advanced far enough in Hegel's day for Hegel to give his Philosophy of Nature an explicitly evolutionary guise.” “I do not think we can doubt that, if Hegel had lived a little later, he would have given us an evolutionary, teleological theory of Nature as he did of mind in history.”23

One has in this a Hegel seen from the side of those empirical interests most disregarded by an earlier Anglo-Saxon idealism which borrowed something from him. If Victorian philosophers found in Hegel a support for theology, a barrier against Darwin and materialism, Findlay's Hegel has put aside just that meeting of Protestant piety with subjective idealism which formerly made him a welcome ally. It is well known that such a division took place among Hegel's followers in Germany as soon as the master was dead. A thoroughly secular naturalistic interpretation of his philosophy was proposed by some of the ablest among his students even before the revisionary work of Feuerbach and Marx. Findlay's Hegel is in this tradition, very similar to the Hegel of Michelet, the first editor of the Philosophy of Nature, who had part in the original controversy with the theological Hegelians.24

The precipitous return of Hegel from modern subjectivity to the naturalism and impersonal objectivity of Athens is a tale to which too many fundamental texts from his writings are opposed to permit one to think it complete. Neither should this, any more than a subjective, Protestant view of the Hegelian philosophy, be thought mistaken. The new, as the ancient, Aristotle is most subtle, and permits of a number of systematic and well-founded interpretations. How the two lines of interpretation mentioned can be thought equally required and complementary may be indicated briefly in relation to the Philosophy of Nature. For the one side the philosophical study of nature is superfluous, for the other of the highest interest and central to the Hegelian philosophy. Paradoxically the former upheld in regard to nature the fruitful tradition of Descartes and Newton, where the naturalism of the Marxists has been of doubtful benefit to the sciences.

If the ‘dialectics of nature’ of the Marxists is a sad decline from the Philosophy of Nature, Hegel would no doubt have been quick to compare it with the similar fate of the Aristotelian natural philosophy at the hands of Zeno and Chrysippus. And if Findlay has need to move from the naturalized Hegel to Neoplatonism, there was perhaps an equal need for Marx and his followers to give Hegel a Stoical dress. Certainly, the radical humanism of the Hegelian ‘left’ could not stay with Aristotle, while with the Stoics the assimilation of theory to a universal praxis was already to be found. In the one case as in the other, one should not think simply of historical analogies. The logic of a universal secular humanism has already been elaborated by the Stoics. Marx was deeply familiar with it from his early studies, as with the Epicurean alternative which he thought the best expression of liberalism. And now that the optimism of world revolution has long faded, reflection on rational praxis can hardly but learn from the disintegration of Stoicism into a renewed Platonism.25

Stoicism proposed to relate all theory and practice to a universal human end. This end turned out to be an empty logical form; all the proliferation of Stoic logic did not conceal from their Academic and Sceptic opponents that the content remained a mass of contingencies. Nor did it aid them to give the authority of nature to profane and religious language. It is from the recognition of similar difficulties that Findlay moves to his revised Platonism. “It is a great merit of speech that it can be conducted at varying levels, and it is not one that we should ever wish to eliminate. There must, e.g., be a fairly superficial level of speaking in which vastly many things are possible, and ever more deeply reflective, concrete ways of speaking in which more and more of these superficial ‘possibilities’ are ruled out.” But after some room has been given for an “extensional form of diction suitable for mathematics”, for “more tightly knit, subtly formed kinds of diction, suited to physical, mental, axiological forms of discourse”, the “notion of an adjustment of our concepts to the ‘truth of things’ has … a genuine intrinsic difficulty … : it implies an extraordinary internal dualism in our notions themselves.” At this point he finds demanded the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic doctrine of an intellect which thinks this dualism or whose object is the concrete notion or ‘Begriff’. Whether one thinks of “a clear-cut Socratic or Platonic circumscription of essence” or of “a loose Wittgensteinian pattern of ‘family relations’, Findlay finds that “both represent the ‘truth’ of a mode of conceiving of which superficial conceptions are very far from the truth”.26

Armed with the logic of the ‘notion’ Findlay approaches the Philosophy of Nature much in the way Plotinus brought the natural philosophy of Plato and Aristotle within a unified, concrete view. This method is the opposite of that of Kant or Fichte. They move to the discovery of an ideal order in nature from self-consciousness as their principle, while the Neoplatonists sought to discover an objective principle in which nature and self-consciousness would no longer be divided. For an understanding of the Philosophy of Nature this difference is of the highest importance. What is known and knowable by the Plotinian method is the idea of nature of the Timaeus and of the Aristotelian natural treatises. An admirable and profound insight into this idea of nature is to be found in the writings of Plotinus and Proclus as well as incipiently a scepticism about it. The ‘nature’ of Descartes or Newton evades a Neoplatonic reflection, and that for logical reasons.27

The Neoplatonic method is to bring to light what in the objects of thought permits a convinced ‘non-absolutistic’ attitude to them. The unity or whole, against which all conceptual and sensuous content is judged to be invincibly relative and uncertain, is itself taken as the positive and comprehensive object and called an ‘idea’. These unities, and a system of them, are sought by a sceptical reflection on what seems most solid and scientifically established, e.g., Euclidian geometry. It is a movement through the sciences, they being presupposed, to a philosophical knowledge whose object was not thought to have been present initially. Having attained this result it is content with it; it has not the impulse to return to the finite and investigate it anew. For this reason also one finds the harshest contrast in Neoplatonism of a profoundly critical rational spirit and an empiricism radical to the point of superstition. One is at the same time immersed in the contingent and free of it.28

The sciences of the modern period made the rational conclusion of the Neoplatonists their starting point and sought to extend indefinitely a rational control over the empirical. Instead of a sceptical reflection on the finite there was the endless impulse to investigate it as what was assumed to be knowable. The sceptical attitude remained, but as a subordinate moment and the refusal to accept the appearances untested and on authority. One had escaped the oppressive burden of a meaningless contingency and sought instead to bring out its meaning in an inquiry itself interminable. So Hegel explains the shift of attention back to the empirical out of radical scepticism and the retreat into abstract thought.29

Philosophy of Nature, he thought, could only get beyond the nebulous form it had in Neoplatonism after a considerable expansion of the new sciences. They had to reach the point where the ‘ideas’ or ‘notions’ which they assumed were also to be found present and developed in their logical distinctions in what were for the scientists themselves empirical discoveries only. For example, that celestial and terrestrial motion were to be seen as primarily one, not opposed as in the Aristotelian ‘physics’, was readily assumed by the moderns. For they began with the ‘idea’ or general notion of motion. It was only after the differences of a logical order in this general idea had been recognized in the laws of mechanics as they applied to circular, rectilinear (‘fall’) and what Aristotle called constrained motion, that the philosophers could review these discoveries and declare that what was present was the concrete notion.30

Assumed on the part of the scientists is a Cartesian subjectivity, which has indeed the vice that it readily mistakes logical for empirical entities and vice versa. But there is also to Hegel's mind in this science a capacity to correct itself and move to better formulations without limit. It has no need of Philosophy of Nature or other philosophical aids. Nor can it make anything of what the philosopher does with its results. For it has hold of ‘notions’ only either in an abstract anticipatory form or else as the ‘subjective notion’ or subjectivity. But it is only because science pursued in this attitude has the capacity to bring out the logical in the phenomena themselves, if confusedly, that Philosophy of Nature can come into being as a further and independent consideration of nature. Obviously, however, the philosopher would have first to establish that the logical element he looks to in the sciences is not to be regarded as subjective merely.31

It is in a way quite correct to say with Findlay that Hegel's analysis of nature must be “profoundly suspect” from the point of view of “the mechanistic materialism which has dominated natural science since the time of Descartes.” One has the difficulty that Hegel's teleology of nature can be seen in an immediate and intuitive way from a Neoplatonic standpoint. It cannot be developed logically from that standpoint. The other or Cartesian standpoint has brought logic into nature more definitely, but it is a non-teleological logic. The originators of modern science were strongly antagonistic to explanations according to ends. But their antagonism was to the abuse of finite teleology. Their subjective principle was at the same time the recognition of an infinite teleology. And their primary interest, explicit certainly to Hegel rather than to themselves, was to give this principle also objective form—not by a sceptical destruction only of the ‘logic of the understanding’ but by saving it as an aspect and incomplete form within. A logic of the ‘notion’, which should thereby be inclusive of finite knowledge and not only beyond it. “What distinguishes the Philosophy of Nature from physics is … the kind of metaphysics used by them both.”32 “If genera and forces are the inner side of Nature, the universal, in face of which the outer and individual is only transient, then still a third stage is demanded, namely, the inner side of the inner side, and this … would be the unity of the universal and the particular”. Hegel's method, which gives back its place to the contingent, can do so only against a science more abstractly metaphysical than that of the ancients. Only so can a logical criticism of this metaphysics establish the ‘notion’ as comprehensive of everything empirical.

These differences can be made clearer through an example or two. Findlay, as mentioned before, finds an evolution or movement towards a universal end required in Hegelianism in nature as well as in history. If Hegel rejected this view it was not on logical grounds but because the sciences of his day still permitted it. Findlay sees the matter so because, Platonically, the ‘idea of life’ does not itself have broken, natural, non-teleological form, but can be participated in its unity more adequately now or in a future than in the past. Hegel does not exclude this perspective but looks at it as rather a matter of mechanism and natural selection than of teleology. He is far more Darwinian than Findlay. At the same time he will not call such adaptation of natural species to their world ‘evolution’. If one used the word here in the same logical sense as he gives it in speaking of history, it would rather have to be expected that plants or life implicit—or even before that geological nature—tended to explicate itself into animal life, which would be the undoing of nature as such.33

From the same assumptions Findlay finds Hegel oppressively confined in an anthropocentric world to which the vast galaxies are only an adornment. Against a Chrysippus or a Marx this would be altogether in place. Hegel, however, was as much as any in the ‘infinite universe’ of the new science. The narrow world of the ancients, or our planetary system, is indeed restored to a dignity it had lost. And empty spaces with bodies moving aimlessly in them Hegel certainly finds rather boring. For what is admired therein is an infinity which he takes to be no less present, and more concretely, within our system. It is only so far as, Platonically, the ‘notion’ appears to be less restricted in the abstract form of space and mechanism that (Hegel would say) this admiration arises. Hegel however regards every level of nature in this perspective, in which finite distinctions are also saved as sharply and precisely as by Aristotle. What is indeed difficult is how Hegel at the same time imparts a more than Platonic reality to the world and dissolves it with Judaic resolution into a God-created nullity. This is however an eradicable part of Hegelianism against which Findlay confesses his prejudice with agreeable candour.34


  1. Hegel's Philosophy of Nature, translated by A. V. Miller with foreword by J. N. Findlay. London and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970. Pp. xxxi, 450. £3.75. ($12.00).

  2. Hegel's Philosophy of Nature, translated and with an introduction by Michael John Petry. London: Allen and Unwin: Toronto: Methuen. 1970. Pp. 392; 469; 422. £18.00 the set of three volumes (U.K. only): $24.95 each volume.

  3. The Logic of Hegel, translated from The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences by William Wallace, Oxford. 1873. Of this a second edition appeared in 1892 and Wallace's translation of the Philosophy of Mind in 1894. The quotation is from Wallace's preface to the Logic, p. xi.

  4. Wallace, Prolegomena to the Study of Hegel's Philosophy, Oxford. 1894. Pp. 81-87. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, p. 439. foll., outlines the sense in which he thinks a Philosophy of Nature would be possible. In this he is far closer to a Kantian view than to Hegel; e.g. the “question of the operation of Ends in Nature is one which, in my judgment, metaphysics should leave untouched”; “Such a philosophy of Nature … would … abstain wholly and in every form from speculation on genesis.”

  5. Hegel and the Sciences. A conference sponsored by the Hegel Society of America and the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science. Boston University, Dec. 4-6, 1970. The proceedings of the Conference, not yet published, include papers on the connections of formal and dialectical logic; some from the side of the history of science and philosophy of science. The only paper that could be said to be about the interpretation of the Philosophy of Nature from an Hegelian standpoint was J. N. Findlay, The Hegelian Treatment of Biology and Life.

  6. See Section IV below.

  7. P. viii.

  8. Petry, Vol. 1, p. 88.

  9. Petry, Vol. 1, p. 18; generally pp. 21-40.

  10. Philosophy of Nature (tr. Miller), p. 1.

  11. Whereas Findlay (see part IV below) has a definite view of the Hegelian philosophy, it is impossible with Petry to sort out two quite different positions: (1) Hegel's method in natural philosophy is a purely formal scheme, which can be regarded as not different in any fundamental way from the formalism of Schelling which is his principal object of attack in the Philosophy of Nature; (2) his method is fundamentally the same as Newton's—that of the mechanistic science of the modern period—with, in both cases, a theologically inspired teleology lurking behind the phenomena. The former position is, to Hegel's mind, a falling below the Cartesian philosophy and the beginnings of modern science to a kind of scholasticism no longer acceptable to a more enlightened age. The latter is not merely formal. Quoted is Geschichte der Philosophie, pt. 2, p. 178. Berlin 1844. On the interpretation of logic and experience in the science of the modern period Phänomenologie des Geistes, p. 175 foll. ed. Hoffmeister. Hamburg. 1952.

  12. Vol. 1, p. 83.

  13. Vol. 1, p. 363; Vol. III, pp. 228-9.

  14. Vol. III, pp. 299-300.

  15. Petry, Vol. 1, p. 344. Hegel, tr. Miller, pp. 66-67. Hegel regarded Kepler's laws as a physical explanation of gravitation and as adequate to the phenomena “in the main characteristics” but for perturbation, in which he sees “the really material addition made by Newton to Kepler's laws”. This principle is important because “it rests on the proposition that attraction, so-called, is an effect of all the individual parts of bodies as material”. This taken into account, it becomes possible to see in planetary motion primarily the ‘notion’ in its mechanical or immediate objective form. What seems of the highest importance to Hegel is “that the proof of Reason in regard to the quantitative determinations of free (viz. celestial) motion can only be based on space and time as determinations of the Notion, i.e. on moments whose relation (but not an external one) is motion”. It would follow from this that, e.g. light or nature as electromagnetic should not have place in the explanation of gravitation. Miller's tr. p. 68 on the above.

  16. Petry, Vol. 1, p. 142.

  17. Foreword, p. viii.

  18. Petry, Vol. 2, p. 17. The German reads: “Als das abstrakte Selbst der Materie ist das Licht das Absolut-leichte, und als Materie ist es unendliches Aussersichsein, aber als reines Manifestieren, materielle Idealität untrennbares und einfaches Aussersichsein.”

  19. The German: “Die Allgemeinheit, nach welcher das Tier als einzelnes eine endliche Existenz ist, zeigt sich an ihm als die abstrakte Macht in dem Ausgang des selbst abstrakten, innerhalb seiner vorgehenden Prozesses (356). Seine Unangemessenheit zur Allgemeinheit ist seine ursprüngliche Krankheit und (der) angeborne Keim des Todes. Das Aufheben dieser Unangemessenheit ist selbst das Vollstrecken dieses Schicksals. Das Individuum hebt sie auf, indem es der Allgemeinheit seine Einzelnheit einbildet, aber hiermit, insofern sie abstrakt und unmittelbar ist, nur eine abstrakte Objectivität erreicht, worin seine Tätigkeit sich abgestumpft (hat), verknöchert und das Leben zur prozesslosen Gewohnheit geworden ist, so dass es sich so aus sich selbst tötet.” Text of Nicolin and Pöggeler, Hamburg. 1959.

  20. Apart from an earlier general work on Hegel, Findlay's views may be found in The Discipline of the Cave (1966), The Transcendence of the Cave (1967), Ascent to the Absolute (1970); all Allen and Unwin, London. Available to the writer were also not yet published papers on Hegel's Physics and Organics given at Milwaukee and at Boston in 1970. Quoted words from Ascent to the Absolute, p. 47, and Foreword to Miller's translation, p. ix.

  21. Foreword, p. xxiv.

  22. Quotations from Ascent, p. 137, pp. 261-2. Hegel on the Sceptics in Geschichte der Philosophie, pt. 1, pp. 473-517. Berlin. 1840. Neoplatonism as the positive result of Scepticism, ibid. pp. 516-7.

  23. Discipline of the Cave, pp. 80-81; Ascent, p. 145.

  24. Michelet's view of the Hegelian philosophy and his account of the dispute mentioned may be found in his Geschichte der letzten Systeme der Philosophie in Deutschland von Kant bis Hegel, Vol. II. pp. 601-801. Berlin, 1838 (reprinted Hildesheim, 1967).

  25. In proposing to transform the Hegelian philosophy into revolutionary praxis Marx in fact gives it a one-sided subjective character. Nature is simply life or the reality of self-consciousness: e.g. “die Gesellschaft ist die vollendete Wesenseinheit des Menschen mit der Natur, die wahre Resurrektion der Natur, der durchgeführte Naturalismus des Menschen und der durchgeführte Humanismus der Natur”. [Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte; Marx, Werke, Darmstadt, 1962, Vol. 1, p. 596.] This unity is for self-consciousness not as idea but in ‘praxis’ or the process of realizing it. This scheme differs from the Stoic (as interpreted by Hegel) only in that the economic realm is not turned over to a servile class but, thanks to subsequent economic development, workers can also be freed. There remains, however, in Marx's communism exactly the difficulty Hegel pointed to in the Hellenistic philosophies, viz. that between the rational and the natural in man the connection is external and invincibly contingent—the charge which the Sceptics brought against the dogmatic sects. Marx recognizes that this is the case: “Der Unterschied zwischen persönlichem Individuum und zufälligem Individuum ist keine Begriffs Unterscheidung, sondern ein historisches Faktum”, Deutsche Ideologie, Werke, ed. cit., Vol. 2, p. 82. Epicurus and liberalism: “Bei Epikur ist … die Atomistik … als die Naturwissenschaft des Selbstbewusstseins, das sich unter der Form der abstrakten Einzelheit absolutes Prinzip ist, bis zur höchsten Konsequenz (viz. its explicit opposition to the universal) … vollendet”, Dissertation, ed. cit. Vol. 1, p. 69.

  26. Ascent, pp. 115-7.

  27. For the difference between the Neoplatonic and the Cartesian or modern standpoint, as Hegel saw it, Geschichte der Philosophie, part 3, introduction. On the tendency of Neoplatonic thought to break down the limited world of the ancients, e.g. the controversy between John Philoponus and Simplicius on the difference between celestial and terrestrial matter; on which Sambursky, The Physical World of Late Antiquity, London, 1962. Ch. VI.

  28. For the Neoplatonic method, Geschichte der Philosophie, part 3, p. 47 foll. (Berlin, 1840); and for its limits, ibid. pp. 57-60. On its relation to the Sceptics one may compare Sextus Empiricus, Contra Mathematicos, 310-12. (ed. Fabricius, Leipsig. 1840, pp. 358-9), to which Hegel refers (o.c. p. 513), with Plotinus, Enneads, V, 5, 2.

  29. Hegel, o.c., part 3, p. 242. What was needed, he says, was not the further refinement of medieval logic but rather to discard the most of it, and to let the sciences go naively their own way. The old difficulties intrinsic to the finite or sceptical (= inquiring, suchende) sciences remained, but, as solved in principle in the presupposition of Cartesian science (viz. the substance in which thought and extension are one) they did not as before paralyse interest in empirical inquiry for itself.

  30. e.g. Encyklopädie, section II.

  31. “Now although the empirical treatment of Nature has this category of universality in common with the Philosophy of Nature, the empiricists are sometimes uncertain whether this universal is subjective or objective; one can often hear it said that these classes and orders are only made as aids to cognition … when, however, the universal is characterized as law, force, matter, then we cannot allow that it counts only as an external form and subjective addition”, and the following, Philosophy of Nature, tr. Miller, p. 10. The scientists must waver between one attitude and the other. If they try to resolve the conflict by excluding metaphysics, all the difficulties of pre-Cartesian science recur. If they hold instead to the rational side, their idea of nature becomes a dead abstraction. It is best for the scientist if he has an intuition of the concrete unity to guide his theory, and stay with that. For to go farther logically a very different grasp of his method would be necessary.

  32. Philosophy of Nature, tr. Miller, pp. 10-11.

  33. The briefest comment on this difficult question would be that (a) the apparent evolution of species is easily accommodated within the Hegelian Philosophy of Nature; (b) to reduce it to a temporal progression from simpler to more complex is the influence of an abstract logic that takes from nature the sheer contingency and inexplicable variety of its forms; (c) the result, humanly considered, of this abstract consideration of nature is an abstract self-consciousness that cannot in the manner of the Greeks humanize or raise to logical simplicity its natural content.

  34. “My aversion from theism, even when qualified as ‘panentheism’ is … constitutional”. Ascent, p. 91. “Hegel certainly tried hard … to mislead his readers into believing that he held something like Christian theism, a doctrine that is not through and through teleological, that explains things by their origin rather than by their ultimate goal”, o.c. pp. 141-2. Findlay is quite right as opposing “late nineteenth century Anglo-Saxon idealists with their belief in a single, seamless ‘Reality’, the subject of all judgments, all of whose nuances were ‘internally related’” who “sought absolute unity where it is not truly to be found, in the phenomena of this dirempted, alienated sphere”; whose “absolute reality … assumed the painful form of … a sort of cosmic British Empire, with members bound together by strict Victorian causal determinism, beribboned with a few superadded links of sentimental teleology”, Transcendence of the Cave, p. 212.

Christopher J. Berry (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Berry, Christopher J. “Hegel on the World-Historical.” History of European Ideas 2, no. 2 (1981): 155-62.

[In the following essay, Berry focuses on illuminating the sense in which Hegel's used the term “world-historical.”]

Hegel's notion of a world-historical individual has always been troublesome. This is exemplified by two of his most recent commentators in English. Shlomo Avineri, on the one hand, regards Hegel's various pronouncements as inconsistent, since, in one place, the world-historical individual is said to be wholly conscious of the idea of history and its development, in another place, is said to be instinctively conscious of it and in yet another place is said to be totally unaware of it.1 Whereas Charles Taylor, on the other hand, noting Avineri's discussion, remarks that these positions all come from lectures, and not from a work Hegel himself published, so that (it is seemingly held to be inferable) they can be reconciled ‘around the notion that world-historical individuals have a sense of the higher truth they serve, but they see it through a glass darkly’.2 The aim of this brief notice is to look at this troublesome notion in the light of what Hegel means more broadly by the term ‘world-historical’. This perspective, it is hoped, will show that although Taylor's formulation is faulty and misleading the thrust of his comment on Avineri is supportable.

Hegel's philosophy of history is a systematisation of his conception of world history as a unity. The root of this conception lies in his systematically articulated conviction that the history of the world in its true significance (which is to say its meaning or purpose) is constituted by Geist.3Geist is above all else active and this activity at its most basic is the process of actualisation, whereby Geist comes to be for-itself what it is in-itself. More precisely, this process takes the dialectical form of differentiation (Objective Geist) from simple unity (Subjective Geist) and their preservative supersession (Aufhebung) in an enriched reunion (Absolute Geist). Hegel's notion of the world-historical belongs in the Moment of Objective Geist. Its location there is, as will be seen, crucial in a proper appreciation of its significance. The differentiation indicative of this Moment is manifest by the multiplicity and diversity of societies. Given that these societies are the work of Geist then they partake of this activism. The history of the world is the story of this activity.

This is a historical story because the different geographical location of societies relates merely to their ‘natural’ dimension and this is passive; nature is not developmental, it is repetitive and has no history.4 Societies as active have eo ipso a spiritual dimension, they are historical subjects. Hegel uses the term Weltgeist to depict this historicity. The Weltgeist is the substance of history and while it remains one and the same ‘it discloses this nature in the existence of the world’.5 World history is governed by an ‘ultimate design’, it is, as Hegel declares on numerous occasions, a ‘Rational process’.6 It is the task of the ‘philosophical historian’, whose activity is the dialectical synthesis of ‘original’ and ‘reflective’ history,7 to elicit this Rational core of history, its ‘universal thought’.8 The discernment of this ‘thought’ amongst the diversity is the discernment of Geist's process. This not only situates societies temporally, it also, because time itself is nothing other than Geist's self-completion,9 entails that this diversity can be evaluated.

The criterion of evaluation that Hegel overtly employs is freedom. This choice is not arbitrary and it is important to appreciate Hegel's chain of thought here. Hegel is explicit that ‘the substance of Geist is freedom’10 so that what the history of the world, as the history of the growth of freedom, reveals is Geist's self-actualisation. Geist is dialectically distinguished from nature because it is active and this activity is precisely derived from it having overcome (aufgehoben) nature. This overcoming is achieved through Geist realising that the immediacy or ‘otherness’ of nature is its own creation and thus attaining self-consciousness.11 This realisation is the work of thought. Thought is the prerogative of the spiritual for ‘natural objects do not think’12 and it is in thought that freedom directly inheres.13 This freedom is at first only implicit (Subjective Geist) and it has to become explicit. This explication or objectification constitutes the sociohistorical (objective) world. The acme of this objectification is the State and the history of the world as the growth of freedom is the history of States.14

World history is, as Weltgeist, Geist's process in time.15 The Weltgeist is in no way transcendent. It is what it does and, therefore, the Weltgeist has no form other than its existence as a Volksgeist or State; there is no residue—Geist's becoming ‘presents a slow procession and succession of spiritual shapes (Geistern), a gallery of pictures, each of which is endowed with the entire wealth of Spirit.’16

This process as we have seen is intrinsically one of differentiation and the judgement of world history is predicated upon that point. This is best grasped through the noting the bifocality that Hegel attributes to a State in time. In the Philosophy of Right he remarks

The State in its actuality is essentially an individual State and beyond that a particular State. Individuality (die Individualität) is to be distinguished from particularity. The former is a moment in the very Idea of the State, while the latter belongs to history.17

This is indicative of another formulation of the dialectic, though here Hegel uses the term Einzelheit for individuality as one leg of the triad—universality, particularity, individuality. The universal ‘represents’ simple identity, but this is only potential, it is only identity in itself. This potential is actualised by the identical particularising itself (thus engendering contradictions). Finally, these particulars are known to be at one with the universal. This union of the universal and the particular constitutes the individual (das Einzelne); it is their ground.18 The State, in one of Hegel's best known formulations, is the ‘actuality of the ethical Idea’19 and the individual and the actual are equatable.20

As applied interpretatively to the historical process, universality is instantiated by the fact that the subject-matter of history, its Rational core as noted above, is ‘thought-full’ or spiritual and ‘thought … is knowledge of universals’.21 The particular refers to the historically various forms that States have taken, how and to what extent they embody freedom. It is a consequence of this point that States as particulars, as concrete self-subsistent entities, cannot be united and hence, in part, Hegel's rejection of Kant's prescriptions for perpetual peace. However, from the perspective of the Weltgeist there is a unifying dimension. States as individuals are Moments in the becoming of Geist.22 A State's individuality is thus its identity with the Weltgeist. More precisely, when a State's particularity is ‘informed’ by the Weltgeist then it is an individual. This inform-ing is the criterion of world-historicality. The world-historical is that which partakes in actualising the meaning of the world.

The Weltgeist is necessarily progressive so that when it moves on the State ‘returns’ to its particularity and thereupon begins to fade.23 It need not die, since the world still has within it States like the Chinese whose role in world history is long past. This bears out the earlier point that the diversity of societies must be explained diachronically; the ‘nature’ of China, its latitude and longitude, has not changed. From the perspective of Geist the various diverse forms of social and political life fall into order. This now permits a periodisation that is also simultaneously a ranking so that Hegel is able to paraphrase Schiller and declare that world-history is a court of judgement.24

Hegel divides the history of the world into four epochs or ‘worlds’—the Oriental, Greek, Roman and Germanic. Each epoch is a normative advance on its predecessor. The criterion of division is, as we have seen, freedom, so that, in one of his best known formulations, Hegel declares pithily

The East knew and to the present day knows that One is Free; the Greek and Roman world that some are free; the German world knows that All are free.25

Though there are four epochs, as the wording here intimates, this is reducible to the basic triplicity that characterises all the movements of Geist. The first epoch, though possessing the germ of self-consciousness (unlike Africa which accordingly is Geschichtlose), is still immersed in the simple unity of nature, the second and third epochs are the differentiation that is Geist's separation from nature and the fourth epoch is that of Geist's enriched reunion where through the medium of Christianity Geist comes home to itself.

The drama of world history is thus played out by States, it is they seemingly that are the world-historical actors. What role, therefore, can be played by individual human beings? It should be stressed here that for Hegel the individual is not conceptually distinct from his State; rather it is constitutive of his identity (hence among other implications Hegel's rejection of Contractarian political philosophy).26 Nevertheless, notoriously, Hegel does allow some individuals to play a world-historical role.

Individual human beings are allowed a role because the individual is of worth. For Hegel this is a truth and since the true is an immanental whole27 and not transcendent it must find expression in the world. Historically, this expression is the import of Christianity. The ‘essential end’ of Christianity is the redemption of the individual as such.28 In Christ, God has become man on earth and this gives to individual human existence ‘absolute moral justification’;29 the individual person participates in the realm of Geist. Given that the Christian revelation provides the ‘key to world history’30 then the recognition of individuals in history is warranted.

Though this warrant is underpinned in this manner Hegel provides for it philosophically (philosophy is the more adequate form for conveying the content that assumes a figurative form in religion). This provision is the principle that he invokes in his argument for a monarchy in the Rational State. The State consists of individual citizens, and this needs expression so that the State may attain actuality, that is, be true to, or coherent with, its concept (Begriff). This expression was lacking in the polis. The Greeks did not understand that

when a decision is to be made, an ‘I will’ must be pronounced by man himself. This ‘I will’ constitutes the great difference between the ancient world and the modern, and in the great edifice of the State it must therefore have its appropriate objective existence.31

The monarch has this role. In arguably similar fashion the history of the world consists of the actions of individual men (finite spiritual subjects). This ‘individualism’ is objectified in the meaning of the world, the actualising process of Geist, in the work of those individuals whose deeds are of world-historical import. These world-historical individuals demonstrate ‘the true nature of man in its serene purity’ (unverkummerter Reinheit);32 in them the ‘inner soul’ of all individuals is called to life.33

Who according to Hegel fulfils this role? He gives only three examples, Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon. What do these three have in common?

The context where all three are cited together is to the effect that their whole lives were spent in toil in achieving their purpose, and that this did not bring happiness; rather, to the contrary, one dies young, one was murdered and one was exiled.34 However, that alone is not sufficient to demarcate them and what they shared in addition was the fact their own particular purpose was also Geist's purpose—that in prosecuting their end they were actualising a stage in Geist's progress.35 The same principle that operated in the history of States is also present here—when the particular is taken up by the Weltgeist then it assumes individuality, it becomes world-historical.

The ensuing narrative that Hegel provides relates what these three did to attain that status. Alexander was responsible for the final triumph of the Greek world over its Persian predecessor which was the last Moment of the Oriental world. He represents the ideal of Hellenic existence and bequeathed a noble and brilliant union.36 Caesar effected two objects. He calmed civil strife, but originated it anew by extending Rome beyond the Alps, thus enlarging the scope of world-history by introducing the next world-historical Volk, the Germans.37 Napoleon is not treated at the same time length. He is merely said to have restored France as a military power and, knowing how to rule, to have settled France's internal affairs. However, from that base he then subjected Europe and diffused his liberal institutions (liberalen Einrichtungen), though they were powerless against recalcitrant Catholic peoples.38 (He failed, for example, to establish a new constitution in Spain.)

What conclusions can be drawn from this choice of candidates for world-historical significance? One point that Hegel makes frequently is that they were great men who did achieve great things. It is in this context that Hegel is critical of the pragmatic historian. Pragmatic history is a species of reflective history, which is typified generically as going beyond the confines of the period under consideration. The pragmatic historian specifically, is one who is concerned to learn lessons from the past. Though Hegel is scathing in his criticism of the unhistorical nature of such an enterprise,39 he reserves most of his scorn for the pragmatic historian in the guise of the ‘petty psychologist’. This individual endeavours to explain historical events by consideration of contingent particularities, what Hegel terms ‘casual and private features’.40 This not only trivialises the actions of men, most especially those of world-historical status, by reducing them to subjective interests, like ambition and avarice,41 but also commits a serious philosophical mistake. The pragmatic psychological historian, because he employs Verstand, separates the conceptual unity of human action (its actuality) into inner and outer.42 Moreover, he then goes on to emphasise the inner as the essential, and as explanatory of the outer, which now becomes superficial.43 The identification of this mistake is, of course, an important ingredient in Hegel's critique of Kantian ethics and those who seek to make the certitude of conscience the criterion of moral rectitude. For Hegel, a man is what he does.44 Accordingly, the great deeds carried out by the world-historical individuals means that they are great men. We must acknowledge that they willed what they did and did what they willed and not indict them in terms of private virtues like humility, charity etc.45

Given that Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon were great, in what did their greatness consist? The clue to the answer here is that world-history is the history of States as the embodiments of freedom. To be a world-historical individual means to be great in this arena; all three were political heroes. This explains why neither Socrates nor Luther qualify as heroes.46 In contrast to the worldly political deeds of the ‘three’, Socrates was a teacher and Luther ‘a simple monk’.47 Their significance lies elsewhere, for as Hegel says explicitly of Socrates ‘the world of thought was his true home’.48 There is, however, more than being political to the specific identification of these three heroes as being world-historical. Their world-historicality stems from the further fact that their heroism operated at transitional stages in history.

Caesar is the best example of the transitional hero, but Alexander did sum up Greek superiority over the Orient and out of the ruins of his Empire the Romans emerged into dominance and Napoleon demonstrated, through his internal reforms and their diffusion, the true message of the French Revolution. On this criterion it is understandable how William the Conqueror does not have world-historical status, for, although he introduced feudalism into England, this was not an inauguration of universal significance.49 Charlemagne is rather more problematic. He is a political actor, since he formed a systematically ordered State, which, given the theoretical importance of the State for Hegel, is a truly significant achievement.50 Furthermore, his reign forms the conclusion to the first period of the Germanic World and it is thus transitional. The fact, moreover, that his Empire soon fragmented is no different than Alexander's. But, what is a difference is that from the fragmentation of the Alexandrine Empire arose the next epoch in world history, whereas following Charlemagne's Empire all that occurred was the ‘infinite falsehood’ of the Middle Ages.51 More pointedly, though Charlemagne was a man of power, greatness and nobility of soul his rational constitution depended solely on his own strength of character, and not on the Geist des Volkes. It was, in short, like Napoleon's constitution for Spain, an external imposition.52 For a transition to be world-historical, therefore, it must be identifiable as integral to Geist's self-actualisation. The aims of the three heroes, what they willed, are also world-historical progressive processes.53 This is why they are world-historical individuals. It does not however follow from this that they had the aims they did because these were world-historical.

This now broaches the key question, as exemplified by Avineri and Taylor, of the awareness these three had of their world-historical role. It is crucial here to reiterate that world-history deals with the development of Objective Geist, for this is the source of what consistency there is in Hegel's account. It is in the State and its history that Geist comes to objective consciousness of itself but it is only in art, religion and ultimately only in philosophy that Geist knows itself as the Absolute. The meaning of world history, and thence of the deeds of world-historical individuals, is the prerogative not of these individuals but of the philosopher. Philosophical knowledge is retrospective but this is not the perspective of the hero. The very fact that ‘he is created by his age just as much as he creates it’,54 or that he can ‘put into words the will of his age’55 or that it is hero ‘who express(es) what the age requires’56 means that as a contemporary he lacks the requisite ‘distance’ for philosophy. Heroes are men of ‘practice’,57 thus when they are said to have ‘inner vision’ or ‘insight’ into what is needed58 this, regardless of the opacity of the glass through which they look, is not the apprehension of actuality; of Reason as the rose in the cross of the present.59

If indeed this were so then the cunning of Reason (List der Vernunft) would not operate. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk because the outcome and significance of actions cannot be known by the actors themselves as they act. The outcome of their actions is instrumental in the accomplishment not of their ends but God's.60 This applies to all individuals and world-historical individuals are not exempt; indeed, they are explicitly referred to as ‘living instruments’.61 The meaning of world history, and thence of the identification of what is world-historical, is only fully grasped by the philosopher; the history of philosophy is

a revelation of what has been the aim of Geist throughout its history; it is therefore world history in its innermost signification.62

Through philosophy Geist attains knowledge of itself, but this means ultimately in truth philosophy is not the transaction or product of, for example, Socrates but it is the work of the Absolute Subject coming home to itself as Absolute Substance.


  1. Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972, p. 233. Cf. similarly J. Plamenatz, Man and Society, London: Longmans, 1963, vol. 2, p. 205.

  2. Hegel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 393n.

  3. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (Introduction), trans. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, (hereafter, WHI), p. 128: Sämtliche Werke, ed. G. Lasson, Leipzig, 1921, (hereafter, L), vol. VIII, p. 154. It is intrinsic to Hegel's philosophy that Geist cannot be defined, that is, limited from without—there is nothing outside Geist. The meaning of the world is to be found in the world and all that has meaning is ultimately Geist.

  4. Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. Baillie, New York: Harper Row Torchbooks, 1967, (hereafter, PM), p. 326: L II 196.

  5. WHI 29: L VIII 6.

  6. WHI 27-29: L VIII 5-7.

  7. WHI 12-24: L VIII 266-277. Cf. G. D. O'Brien, Hegel on Reason and History, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1975, p. 16ff; B. T. Wilkins, Hegel's Philosophy of History, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974, p. 44.

  8. WHI 30: L VIII 9.

  9. PM 800: L II 515.

  10. Philosophy of Mind, trans. W. Wallace and A. Miller, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, (hereafter EM), p. 15: Encyclopädie der Philosophischen Wissenschaften, (hereafter Enc.), para. 382, Zusätz [to be found in Werke Berlin, 1840, (hereafter B)], vol. VIIii, p. 25.

  11. EM 19: Enc. 384 Z: B VIIii 30.

  12. Philosophy of Nature, trans. A. Miller, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970, p. 7: Enc 246 Z: B VII: 13.

  13. Enc. 23: L V 57.

  14. Cf. Philosophy of Right, trans. T. Knox, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942, (hereafter PR), p. 20: L VI 27.

  15. WHI 128: L VIII 134.

  16. PM 807 (my emphasis): L II 520.

  17. PR 279: L VI 350.

  18. Enc. 163, 164: L V 159, 160.

  19. PR 155: L VI 195.

  20. Enc. 163: L V 159.

  21. WHI 49: L VIII 34.

  22. WHI 65: L VIII 52.

  23. WHI 58: L VIII 45.

  24. PR 216′: L VI 271.

  25. Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree, London, 1872, (hereafter PH), p. 110. [Werke, ed. H. Glockner, Stuttgart, 1927, (hereafter G), vol. XI, p. 150). Cf. (PR 220; WHI 39, 54: L VI 296: VIII 136, 130. Also History of Philosophy, trans. E. Haldane and F. Simson, London, 1896, (hereafter HP), in G. Gray, Hegel on Art, Religion & Philosophy, New York: Harper Row Torchbooks, 1970, p. 303: G XVII 134.

  26. Cf. my ‘From Hume to Hegel: the Case of the Social Contract’, Journal of History of Ideas, 1977, vol. 38, pp. 691-703. I have examined Hegel's theory of human nature in my Hume Hegel and Human Nature, The Hague: M. Nijhoff, forthcoming.

  27. PM, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York, 1966, p. 32: L II 14.

  28. Philosophy of Religion, trans. E. Spiers and J. Sanderson, London, 1895, (hereafter PRel), in Gray, op. cit., p. 143: G XV 35.

  29. PRel II 274: G XVI 142.

  30. WHI 41: L VIII 23.

  31. PR 288: L VI 360.

  32. EM 2: Enc 377 Z: B VIIii 5.

  33. WHI 85: L VIII 78.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid.

  36. PH 285: L VIII 652-3.

  37. PH 324: L VIII 712.

  38. PH 471: L VIII 930-1.

  39. Cf. WHI 21: L VIII 179.

  40. Enc. 140 Z: B VI 280.

  41. Ibid.

  42. For actuality (Wirklichkeit) conceived as the unity of inner and outer see Enc. 142. Cf. WHI 57: L VIII 44.

  43. Enc. 140 Z: B VI 280.

  44. Ibid. cf. WHI 57: L VIII 44.

  45. WHI 141: L VIII 154.

  46. Pace W. H. Walsh, ‘Principle and Prejudice in Hegel's Philosophy of History’ in Z. A. Pelczynski, Hegel's Political Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971, p. 189.

  47. PH 431: G XI 522.

  48. PH 281: L VIII 645.

  49. PH 422: L VIII 866.

  50. PH 376: L VIII 800.

  51. PH 380: L VIII 804.

  52. PH 383: L VIII 808.

  53. WHI 83: L VIII 76.

  54. EM 13: Enc. 381 Z: B VII 22.

  55. PR 295: L VI 368.

  56. WHI 84: L VIII 76.

  57. WHI 83: L VIII 76.

  58. Ibid.

  59. PR 12: L VI 16.

  60. Enc. 209 Z: B VI 382. Similarities between Adam Smith's ‘invisible hand’ and Hegel's notion of the Cunning of Reason have been drawn (see H. B. Acton, ‘Distributive Justice, the Invisible Hand and Cunning of Reason’, Political Studies, 1972, pp. 430-1; G. Lukacs, The Young Hegel, trans. R. Livingstone, London: Merlin Press, 1975, p. 345) and Hegel's earliest references to List occur in his Jena writings in the context of consumption and production, see Jenenser Real philosophie II: L XX 198-9.

  61. PR 217: L VI 272. EM 13: Enc. 381Z: B VIIii 22. WHI 65, 84: L VIII 52, 76.

  62. HP III 547: G XIX 685.

Mark C. Taylor (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Mark C. “Aesthetic Therapy: Hegel and Kierkegaard.” In Kierkegaard's Truth: The Disclosure of the Self, edited by Joseph H. Smith, pp. 343-80. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Taylor compares the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Hegel, particularly in the area of psychology, to highlight what he views as their common purpose of educating readers and encouraging them to cultivate themselves spiritually.]

Few thinkers have contributed more to shaping the modern sense of self than the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and the Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard. In areas as diverse as theology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, literature, and art, the insights originally articulated by Hegel and Kierkegaard have been critically examined, imaginatively elaborated, and eagerly appropriated. Nor has their influence been restricted to that rarefied atmosphere of academic reflection and discussion removed from the confusion and vitality of everyday experience. Hegelian and Kierkegaardian categories permeate our thought and language and condition the way in which many of us understand ourselves and experience our world. Yet despite the lasting importance of the ideas of Hegel and Kierkegaard, the relationship between their contrasting points of view has only rarely been the subject of careful and thorough discussion. As a result of this oversight, many of the most important issues joining and separating Hegel and Kierkegaard continue to go unexamined. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of psychology. Interpreters have tended to appropriate uncritically Kierkegaard's polemical caricature of Hegel as a speculative philosopher who disregards the existing individual. Consequently, the obvious differences separating Hegel and Kierkegaard frequently obscure the more subtle and significant similarities they share. In the following pages, I shall attempt to arrive at an understanding of the common purpose that informs the complex writings of these two demanding authors. My goal is to bring Hegel and Kierkegaard closer together so that their differences can emerge more clearly.


In the preface to his Philosophy of Right, Hegel remarks: “Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thought. It is just as absurd to fancy that a philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as it is to fancy that an individual can overleap his own age …” (p. 11). From Hegel's point of view, forms of reflection, be they naive or scientifically sophisticated, remain inseparably bound to the historical situation within which they arise. Although not readily apparent from his many jibes at the speculative philosopher who has forgotten what it means to be a concrete individual, Kierkegaard heartily agrees with Hegel's recognition of the situatedness of reflection. Throughout his entire authorship, Kierkegaard insists upon the conditional character of all knowing and consistently probes the multiple factors that inform the uniqueness of alternative perspectives. In keeping with their insights, Hegel and Kierkegaard regard their own work as the outgrowth of and the response to dominant intellectual and social tendencies of the day. They both begin with a diagnosis of the philosophical and existential ills of the time and proceed to offer a complex prescription for a supposed cure. More specifically, Hegel and Kierkegaard believe that their respective ages suffer spiritlessness. Each author takes as his fundamental philosophical task the articulation of the means by which the malady of spiritlessness can be overcome.

As M. H. Abrams has pointed out, “No thinker was of greater consequence than Friedrich Schiller in giving a distinctive Romantic formulation to the diagnosis of the modern malaise, to the assumptions about human good and ill which controlled this diagnosis, and to the overall view of the history and destiny of mankind of which the diagnosis was an integral part” (p. 199). For Hegel and his generation, Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) provided a definitive interpretation of the personal and social problems created by the industrialization and commercialization characteristic of modern society. By drawing on insights garnered from Lessing's The Education of the Human Race (1780), Herder's Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-85), Kant's Conjectural Origin of the History of Man (1785), and from the economic analyses of the Scottish philosopher and sociologist Adam Ferguson,1 Schiller forges a comprehensive argument in which he maintains that the essential feature of modern experience is its fragmentation. In a world governed by the competitive laws of an industrial economy, class divisions emerge that create inter- and intrapersonal conflict. In a particularly penetrating passage, Schiller describes the genesis and the consequences of the social and personal dis-integration endemic to his age.

That zoophyte character of the Greek States, where every individual enjoyed an independent life and, when need arose, could become a whole in himself, now gave place to an ingenious piece of machinery, in which out of the botching together of a vast number of lifeless parts a collective mechanical life results. State and Church, law and customs, were now torn asunder; enjoyment was separated from labor, means from ends, effort from reward. Eternally chained to only one single little fragment of the whole, Man himself grew to be only a fragment; with the monotonous noise of the wheel he drives everlastingly in his ears, he never develops the harmony of his being, and instead of imprinting humanity upon his nature he becomes merely the imprint of his occupation, of his science. But even the meagre fragmentary association which still links the individual members to the whole, does not depend on forms which present themselves spontaneously …, but is assigned to them with scrupulous exactness by a formula in which free intelligence is restricted. The lifeless letter takes the place of the living understanding, and a practised memory is a surer guide than genius and feeling.

[1965, p. 40]

For the young Hegel, struggling to formulate a distinctive philosophical position, Schiller's analysis of modernity provided an important catalyst to his thinking. In his early writings on religion and politics, Hegel is preoccupied with the exploration of the nature and the origin of the fragmentation and conflict plaguing his age. Through numerous tentative and experimental writings, Hegel identifies four interrelated dimensions of disintegration that he believes to be of particular importance: political, social, religious, and personal. Hegel's deliberate probing of modern society leads him to conclude that the political integration of his native Germany had completely dissolved. “Every center of life has gone its own way and established itself on its own; the whole has fallen apart. The state exists no longer” (“The German Constitution,” p. 146). Persisting language of the “German Nation” or the “Empire” reflects an actuality of a bygone age that is belied by extant political conditions of the late eighteenth century. “The old forms have remained,” Hegel writes, “but the times have changed, and with them manners, religion, wealth, the situation of all political and civil estates, and the whole condition of the world and Germany. This true condition the old forms do not express; they are divorced from it, they contradict it, and there is no true correspondence between form and fact” (p. 202). With historical changes, vestigial political structures fail to address needs of the time and are experienced as strange and estranging. The forms are maintained only through “superstitious adherence to purely external formalities” (p. 197). Subjective needs and objective sociopolitical forms remain at odds with one another, creating a condition Hegel defines as “alienation.”

In large measure, Hegel attributes these problems to a propensity to reify abstract individuality that he believes to be peculiar to the German people. “The German character's stubborn insistence on independence,” Hegel maintains, “has reduced to a pure formality everything that might serve towards the erection of a state-power and the union of society in a state; and to this formality it has clung just as obstinately” (p. 196). Hegel's conclusion is brief and incisive: “In Europe's long oscillation between barbarism and civilization the German state has not completely made the transition to the latter; it has succumbed to the convulsions of this transition; its members have torn themselves apart to complete independence; the state has been dissolved” (p. 237).

This extraordinary distortion of political life at once grows out of and is reflected in the social existence of a people. Rather than reconciling particular interests with the common weal, individuals set themselves in opposition to one another, seeking personal benefit at the expense of others. Hegel recognizes that “once man's social instincts are distorted and he is compelled to throw himself into interests peculiarly his own, his nature becomes so deeply perverted that it now spends its strength on variance from others, and in the course of maintaining its separation it sinks into madness, for madness is simply the complete separation of the individual from his kind” (p. 242). In a different situation, one might expect the forms of a people's religious life to provide a counterbalance to the centrifugal social forces tending toward social disintegration. But Hegel contends that contemporary religious structures themselves reflect and therefore perpetuate human alienation. Instead of expressing a vital religiosity in which there is a consonance between objective forms and subjective experience, the religious life of the German people suffers from abstract formalism devoid of subjective appropriation. Consequently, faith arises only through heteronomous obedience to alien authority.

Always sensitive to the inseparability of self and world, Hegel recognizes the implications of political, social, and religious alienation for individual persons. Outward conflict manifests itself in inward disintegration;2 political, social, and religious dissolution engender personal fragmentation. Individuals are torn between desire and duty, emotion and reason, subjective inclination and objective obligation, and long for a reconciliation of their sundered selves. From Hegel's perspective, the inward distention of the personality is reflected in the major philosophical and theological movements of the time. Be it Kant's “subjective idealism,”3 Schleiermacher's religious feeling, or Jacobi's intuitionism, the result is the same—the reification of the bifurcation of subjectivity and objectivity that perpetuates conflict within and without. This political, social, religious, and personal fragmentation constitutes the spiritlessness that Hegel sees as the pervasive malady of his age.

In light of this interpretation of modernity, Hegel's attraction to the idealized picture of Greek life elaborated by late eighteenth-century romantics is quite understandable.4 By contrast to the disintegration of his time, Periclean Athens appeared to represent a harmonious society in which individuals could establish personal integration through participation in political and religious structures that simultaneously embodied individual and common purpose. Hegel's infatuation with Greece, however, never leads to the longing to return to lost Arcadia expressed in the poetry of Hölderlin and Novalis. He is more sympathetic with Schiller's historical interpretation of the modern malaise.5 Properly comprehended, the disruption of primitive Greek harmony represents a potential advance for the human spirit in which individual selfhood can become clearly differentiated and decisively defined. Hegel's question is not how to retreat to the Garden but how to advance to the Kingdom. For a while, Hegel, like so many of his contemporaries, placed great hope in the French Revolution. But when the ideals of freedom, fraternity, and equality gave way to the reality of the Reign of Terror, he was forced to reevaluate the means by which the dilemmas faced by his age could be resolved. Philosophical reflection comes to replace sociopolitical reform as the means of overcoming the tensions born of alienation.6 Writing to Schelling in November of 1800, Hegel comments: “In my scientific development, which began from the more subordinate needs of men, I was bound to be driven on to science, and the ideal of my youth had to be transformed at the same time into reflective form, into a system” (Briefe, pp. 59-60). In his early analysis, The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy, Hegel explains that the “source of the need of philosophy” is “dichotomy” (p. 89), or one might add, opposition, bifurcation, fragmentation. Philosophy meets this need by attempting to mediate oppositions and to reconcile differences in a process of unification that maintains distinction while at the same time resolving conflict. Hegel's Promethean philosophical undertaking cannot be properly understood apart from the recognition of his consistent endeavor to overcome the multiple dimensions of fragmentation that he sees at the heart of alienation.

Writing in 1846, Kierkegaard describes “The Present Age” as essentially a “sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence” (Two Ages, p. 68). In contrast to the “essentially passionate age of revolution,” in which individuals had the courage to take decisive action, contemporary man avoids decision and cultivates detachment. This “reflective indolence” is, for Kierkegaard, spiritlessness. The malady is not characterized by a fragmentation that threatens to dismember self and society through the conflict of contradictory forces. Quite the contrary—all-powerful reflection seeks to mediate oppositions and to abrogate the principle of contradiction. Rather than creating intolerable tensions within and among persons, bourgeois social institutions attempt “to stabilize human relationships, to establish procedures and patterns of decorum, to protect its members from unexpected contingencies and to enable them to make prudent provision for the future; to modulate the demands and perils of temporal existence so far as possible into an ordered social space” (Crites, 1972a, p. 76). The individual becomes so identified with or integrated within the social totality of which he is a member that all sense of personal uniqueness and self-responsibility is lost. Kierkegaard labels the process by which individuality evaporates in crowd-existence “levelling.” “The dialectic of the present age,” he argues, “is oriented to equality and its most logical implementation, albeit abortive, is levelling [Nivellementet], the negative unity of the negative mutual reciprocity of individuals. … Anyone can see that levelling has its profound importance in the ascendancy of the category ‘generation’ over the category ‘individuality’” (Two Ages, p. 84).

For Kierkegaard, as for Hegel, the spiritlessness that grows out of this levelling has political, social, religious, and personal dimensions. In the realm of politics, public opinion expressed in a thoughtless press holds sway. Individuals become anonymous ciphers for the viewpoints of others and personal action is transmuted into impersonal spectating. As the power of the crowd waxes, the strength of the individual wanes. In this situation, a possible revitalization of social life offers no remedy for spiritlessness. In fact, Kierkegaard holds that “The idolized principle of sociality in our age is the consuming, demoralizing principle, which in the thralldom of reflection transforms even virtues into vitia splendida” (p. 86). At another point, he develops this crucial insight: “In our age the principle of association … is not affirmative but negative; it is an evasion, a dissipation, an illusion, whose dialectic is as follows: as it strengthens individuals, it vitiates them; it strengthens by numbers, by sticking together, but from the ethical point of view this is a weakening” (p. 106). The religious faith of the nineteenth century simply exacerbates the spiritlessness of the age by obscuring decisive distinctions between the sacred and profane and by identifying religious commitment with participation in a banal form of cultural Protestantism. When everyone is supposed to be a Christian by virtue of birth into an ostensibly Christian world, the tensions distinctively characteristic of a genuine historical career are dissipated and individuals are tranquilized into a false and a dangerous sense of security.

Kierkegaard maintains that the most important consequence of political, social, and religious developments in the modern age is the pervasive loss of authentic individual selfhood. Indeed from Kierkegaard's perspective

the single individual … has not fomented enough passion in himself to tear himself out of the web of reflection and the seductive ambiguity of reflection. The environment, the contemporary age, has neither events nor integrated passion but in a negative way creates a reflective opposition which toys for a moment with the unreal prospect and then resorts to the brilliant equivocation that the smartest thing has been done, after all, by doing nothing.

[Two Ages, p. 69]

Through such enervating reflection, one becomes, quite literally, “nobody.”

The dissipation of individual selfhood is reflected in the chief philosophical and theological movement of the time—Hegelianism. According to Kierkegaard, Hegelian reason “is the abrogation of the passionate disjunction between subjectivity and objectivity” (Two Ages, p. 103).7 But, Kierkegaard adds with a note of irony, the “existential expression” of the abrogation of such decisive contradictions “is to be in contradiction” (p. 97). This existential contradiction is the result of the individual's failure to become himself—a consequence of his self-alienation. Kierkegaard contends that what the age needs is the reintroduction of the distinctions, contrasts, and antitheses ingredient in temporal existence and requisite for the emergence of genuine individuality. Kierkegaard's literary-philosophical effort is directed to creating the possibility of overcoming the dissipation he believes to be characteristic of alienation.

It becomes apparent, then, that the complex works of Hegel and Kierkegaard are intended to serve as remedies for what they both regard as the malady of the age—spiritlessness—the sickness unto death. My analysis suggests, however, that this common diagnosis masks conflicting interpretations of the nature of the illness. Hegel insists that modern man faces the difficult task of finding his way from fragmentation and disintegration among and within individuals to a harmonious inter- and intrapersonal unification or integration. Kierkegaard concludes that the way to selfhood in nineteenth-century Europe requires the negation of the dissipation of concrete existence that results from the thoroughgoing identification of the individual with the sociocultural milieu, and that such differentiation requires a long process of distinguishing person and world. While Hegel calls for a movement from the oppositional differentiation to the reconciliation of self and other, or subject and object, Kierkegaard stresses the importance of advancing from the nondifferentiation to the differentiation of self and other, or subject and object. Nevertheless, for both the question becomes, How can spiritlessness be cured? How can the movement, development, advance, necessary for the realization of spirit be facilitated?

After considerable deliberation, Hegel and Kierkegaard arrive at the conclusion that what the age most needs is an “Aesthetic Education.” Reflecting the continuing influence of Schiller, Hegel writes: “The philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. Men without aesthetic sense is what the philosophers-of-the-letter of our times are. The philosophy of spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. … Poetry gains thereby a higher dignity, she becomes at the end once more, what she was in the beginning—the teacher of humanity.8 Kierkegaard suggests his own sense of mission when he explains: “I am the last stage of the development of a poet in the direction of a small-scale reformer. I have much more imagination than a reformer as such would have, but then again less of a certain personal force required for acting as a reformer” (Journals, no. 6061).

In fine, both Hegel and Kierkegaard assume the role of educator—teachers of humanity whose writings are informed by a pedagogical intent.9 Their diverse philosophical and theological works share the aim of leading individuals of their day from (e-ducare) spiritlessness to spirit. The alpha and the omega of this journey can be expressed in different terms. Hegel and Kierkegaard try to enable their readers to move from inauthenticity to authenticity, from immediacy to immediacy after reflection, from bondage to freedom, from abstract to concrete individuality. Moreover, the pedagogical methods employed in this aesthetic education are remarkably akin to one another. Hegel and Kierkegaard develop alternative phenomenologies of spirit that seek to lead the reader from inauthentic to authentic selfhood. While Hegel undertakes this task explicitly in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Kierkegaard unfolds his analysis in a series of pseudonymous writings composed over a period of years.

The methodological procedures of the authors share significant features. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship develop detailed analyses of various forms of spirit, shapes of consciousness, types of selfhood, or forms of existence. Moreover, the contrasting spiritual configurations are presented in a dialectical progression that advances from less to more complete forms of life. Since the telos of the journey described by Hegel and Kierkegaard is free concrete individuality, they must proceed in a way that does not violate the integrity and autonomy of the learner. Their teaching method must be subtly Socratic rather than crudely authoritarian. Most important, they must begin at the point reached by their pupils and then lead them step by step through the stages from bondage and error to freedom and truth. The works call each reader to “self-examination” and demand that he “judge for himself” the form of life he incarnates. Undertaking this educational journey exacts a price. Hegel claims that the decision to philosophize is always accompanied by “dread.” Critical reflection discloses old certainties to be untenable illusions. Perplexed and bewildered, the voyager tosses and turns in a sea of doubt and despair. In fact, Hegel and Kierkegaard contend that every station along the way to the final destination remains a form of inauthentic existence that must be labeled “despair.” They admit that their pedagogy leads the pupil along a painful “highway of despair” (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 49). “The life of Spirit,” Hegel writes, “is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself” (p. 19). The suffering of dismemberment, however, occasions the cure of the sickness unto death. Though the highway of despair constitutes a dark night of the soul, the completion of the journey holds the promise of realized selfhood.

When understood in this way, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship appear to be Bildungsromanen that chart the circuitous process of self-formation.10 In this context, it is important to distinguish three different narrative strands woven together in each Bildungsgeschichte. In the first place, Hegel's and Kierkegaard's works are quasi-autobiographical; they summarize the phases through which they have passed in their personal development. Hegel describes the Phenomenology of Spirit as his “voyage of discovery,” and Kierkegaard confesses, “My writing is essentially my own development …” (Journals, no. 6390). Secondly, each phenomenology of spirit recapitulates the stages of world development.11 Finally, the different forms of spirit depicted by Hegel and Kierkegaard describe the stages that must be traversed by the reader if he is to reach the goal of genuine individuality. Hegel and Kierkegaard see this third aspect of the Bildungsgeschichte as essential, for it most faithfully expresses the pedagogical intention of their work. Their phenomenologies are Bildungsromanen that encourage the reader to educate himself—to cultivate himself, to emerge from spiritlessness and to rise to spiritual existence. The dramas unfolded never lose sight of the audience to which they are directed. If their works fail to evoke an appropriate response, Hegel and Kierkegaard are forced to regard their efforts as utter failures. It is now necessary to turn our attention to a more detailed analysis of the precise educational methods employed by Hegel and Kierkegaard.


In his introduction, Hegel describes his Phenomenology as “the path of the natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or as the way of the Soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were the stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit, and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself” (Phenomenology, p. 49).12 The book attempts to provide its reader with a “ladder” (p. 17)13 by the means of which one ascends to the scientific perspective from which spirit can grasp its own actuality. As I have suggested, Hegel believes the journey from inauthenticity to authenticity to have both universal or generic and individual or personal dimensions. “The task of leading the individual from his uneducated standpoint [ungebildeten standpunkte] to knowledge,” Hegel maintains, “had to be seen in its universal sense, just as it was the universal individual, self-conscious Spirit whose formative education [Bildung] had to be studied” (ibid., p. 16). Hegel proceeds to argue that “the single individual must also pass through the formative stages [Bildungsstufen] of universal Spirit so far as their content is concerned, but as shapes which Spirit has already left behind, as stages on a way that has been made level with toil” (p. 16). As the analysis unfolds, it becomes apparent that the education of universal and individual spirit, in fact, forms two aspects of a single pedagogical process.

This past experience is the already acquired property of universal Spirit which constitutes the Substance of the individual, and hence appears externally to him as his inorganic nature. In this respect formative education, regarded from the side of the individual, consists in his acquiring what thus lies at hand, devouring his inorganic nature, and taking possession of it for himself. But, as regarded from the side of universal Spirit as substance, this is nothing but its own acquisition of self-consciousness, the bringing-about of its own becoming and reflection into itself.

[pp. 16-17]

The point of departure for Hegel's educational journey is “the standpoint of consciousness which knows objects in their antithesis to itself, and itself in antithesis to them” (p. 15). Put differently, Hegel begins with a situation in which self and other are sundered; the individual subject sets himself over against an alien object that he then attempts to grasp. “Knowledge in its first phase, or immediate Spirit,” Hegel asserts, “is spiritlessness [das Geistlose]” (p. 15). The arduous “initiation of the unscientific consciousness into Science” (p. 16) or the actualization of spirit involves the sublation of this opposition through the incremental reconciliation of subjectivity and objectivity. The goal of this voyage of discovery is the mediation of self and other that involves “pure self-recognition in absolute otherness” (p. 14). Hegel expresses the final insight toward which he leads his pupils in more technical language when he writes: “The spiritual alone is the actual; it is essence, or that which has being in itself; it is that which relates itself to itself and is determinate, it is other-being [Anderssein] and being-for-self, and in this determinateness, or in its self-externality, abides with itself; in other words, it is in and for itself” (p. 14). The multiple dimensions of this reconciliation of self and other, or of subject and object, eventuate in a unification that Hegel sees as overcoming the fragmentation and disintegration endemic to alienation. The dialectical integration of subjectivity and objectivity negates heteronomous determination by alien otherness and realizes authentic self-relation that is mediated by relation to other. This, for Hegel, is the freedom unique to concrete individuality.

The very nature of the end toward which his analysis is directed creates a methodological dilemma for Hegel. In order to lead the reader from inauthentic to authentic existence, it would seem necessary to employ a criterion by which to judge inadequate forms of life and through which to arrange competing structures of consciousness in a progressive sequence. And yet, if the point of the educational journey is the emergence of free autonomous selfhood, no criterion can be externally imposed in a heteronomous manner. Hegel solves this problem by arguing that every form of consciousness provides itself with a standard by which to measure itself, and hence need not be subjected to an alien criterion. Consciousness distinguishes itself from its object, which it takes to exist independent of the cognitive relationship. The self-subsistent object is the criterion by which consciousness judges itself.

In consciousness one thing exists for another, i.e., consciousness regularly contains the determinateness of the moment of knowledge; at the same time, this other is to consciousness not merely for it, but is also outside of this relationship, or exists in itself: the moment of truth. Thus in what consciousness affirms from within itself as being-in-itself or the True we have the standard which consciousness itself sets up by which to measure what it knows. If we designate knowledge as the Notion, but the essence or the True as what exists, or the object, then the examination consists in seeing whether the Notion corresponds to the object. But if we call the essence or in-itself of the object the Notion, and on the other hand understand by the object the Notion itself as object, viz. as it exists for an other, then the examination consists in seeing whether the object corresponds to its Notion. It is evident, of course, that these two procedures are the same.

[Phenomenology, p. 53]

Should consciousness' comparison of itself with its standard yield a negative conclusion concerning the correspondence of subjectivity and objectivity, consciousness is forced to change itself in order more adequately to grasp its object. But, Hegel argues, “in the alteration of the knowledge, the object itself alters for it [i.e., consciousness] too, for the knowledge that was present was essentially a knowledge of the object: as the knowledge changes, so too does the object, for it essentially belonged to this knowledge. Hence it comes to pass for consciousness that what it previously took to be the in-itself is not an in-itself, or that it was only an in-itself for consciousness” (p. 54). Consequently, consciousness is doubly confounded: subjective certainty becomes doubtful, and what had been seen as an objective norm now seems to have been a subjective appearance [Schein]. The apprehension of the illusory character of its criterion is inseparable from consciousness' recognition of a new standard of evaluation. From the viewpoint of consciousness itself, this new norm is encountered as a novel object whose origin is unknown (p. 54)14 but that beckons consciousness to attempt to grasp it. This situation, of course, constitutes the occasion for further dialectical development.

It is necessary to stress that Hegel regards the critique of consciousness by which it progresses from less to more adequate forms as “immanent.” Consciousness engages in a protracted dialogue with itself in which it subjects itself to constant questioning, revision, and reform. Hegel makes this point graphically when he writes, “Thus consciousness suffers this violence at its own hands; it spoils its own limited satisfaction” (p. 51). The conviction that consciousness engages in immanent self-criticism forms an essential presupposition of Hegel's phenomenological method. In a crucial passage, Hegel explains that “not only is a contribution by us superfluous, since Notion and object, the criterion and what is to be tested, are present in consciousness itself, but we are also spared the trouble of comparing the two and really testing them, so that, since what consciousness examines is its own self, all that is left for us to do is simply to look on” (p. 54). In other words, Hegel conceives his task as basically descriptive.15 He attempts to represent accurately the stages through which consciousness, by its own internal dialectic, progresses. Rather than arbitrarily instructing consciousness in the errors of its ways, the phenomenologist must sink his “freedom in the content, letting it move spontaneously of its own nature, by the self as its own self, and then contemplate this movement” (Phenomenology, p. 36). From this perspective, Hegel's method is radically empirical.16 He immerses himself in the observed perspective as completely as possible in order to describe it from within in a way that simultaneously fathoms its inherent principles and discerns its latent contradictions. Interestingly enough, this empiricism is at the same time theoretical and speculative. Hegel assumes the stance of a spectator who observes and records the drama unfolding before him. Thus, the education he attempts to provide the reader is, properly speaking, “aesthetic.” As Stephen Crites points out, “aesthetic” derives from the Greek verb ἀιsθάγομαι, which in its most comprehensive sense means “to observe” and is the etymological root of both “theory” and “theatre.”17 Hegel offers his narrative account of the drama of human consciousness for the reader's contemplation in the hope that the observation of the spectacle will provide an aesthetic education that is cathartic.

Hegel's educational method, therefore, involves an essential distinction between observed and observing consciousness. Hegel is no mere chronicler of consciousness' own experience as it moves from standpoint to standpoint. His narrative perspective affords him an angle of vision not immediately accessible to the form of life he is describing. Having grasped the overall plot of the drama he recounts, Hegel understands the experiences of the actors better than the players themselves. He does not suffer Oedipus's tragic blindness. This comprehensive vision enables Hegel to be the educator who can serve as the reader's guide. Throughout the narrative, Hegel communicates directly with his reader in an effort to provide a map for the dangerous journey along the highway of despair. His method for offering such guidance is the employment of a device we might label “the phenomological we.”18 The repeated remarks reflecting the viewpoint of “us” or of the “we” interspersed throughout the text of the Phenomenology are intended to help the reader to anticipate the peripeteiae and to avoid the pitfalls to which observed consciousness inevitably succumbs.

But Hegel's direct identification with the reader through the device of the “we” should not obscure the significant difference between the points of view of instructor and pupil. As observing consciousness, both author (i.e., Hegel) and reader are distinguished from observed consciousness. Nevertheless Hegel's perspective and that of the reader are not identical; they differ as does the initiator from the initiate. The reader occupies a position suspended between the forms of life examined and the comprehensive vision of his instructor—he “hovers between the viewing and the viewed standpoints” (Fackenheim, p. 36). Habermas correctly points out that “the phenomenologist's perspective, from which the path of knowledge in its manifestations presents itself ‘for us,’ can only be adopted in anticipation until this perspective itself is produced in phenomenological experience. ‘We,’ too, are drawn into the process of reflection, which at each of its levels is characterized anew by a ‘reversal of consciousness’” (Habermas, p. 17). Hegel's pedagogy involves a triplicity of consciousness: the consciousness of the instructor, of the instructed, and of the object of instruction.19

Having established the distinction between the perspectives of teacher and student within observing consciousness, we are in a position to analyze the precise way in which Hegel distinguishes viewing and viewed consciousness. The basis of the difference between these two forms of awareness lies in the nature of their respective objects. We have seen that observed consciousness sees itself involved in an effort to establish knowledge by relating to an object that it takes to be both independent of consciousness and true in itself. Since this very knowledge is the object of observing consciousness, observed consciousness' contrast between subject and object, being-for-consciousness and being-in-itself, now is seen as a distinction that falls within consciousness. The criterion that consciousness encounters as external and imposed upon itself is, for the phenomenologist, immanent in consciousness itself. In other words, “consciousness provides its own criterion within itself, so that the investigation becomes a comparison of consciousness itself” (Phenomenology, p. 53). Hegel stresses that “the essential point to bear in mind throughout the whole investigation is that these two moments, ‘Notion’ and ‘object,’ ‘being-for-another’ and ‘being-in-itself,’ both fall within that knowledge which we are investigating” (p. 53). This insight proves to be central to Hegel's argument.

We have noted that consciousness apprehends the progressive experience it undergoes as resulting from a series of contingent encounters with different external objects. Hegel contends that the reflective description of the experience of consciousness sublates both the externality of subject and object and the contingency of the stages of development from error to truth. The empathetic identification with other forms of consciousness discloses the inherent contradictions that lead to the self-negation of every particular viewpoint. Each perspective is internally related to its opposite in such a way that it bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Hegel argues, however, that dissolution is at the same time resolution. The new object encountered by consciousness is not a creation de novo, but is the result of consciousness' own negation of its prior object.

Consciousness knows something; this object is the essence of the in-itself; but it is also for consciousness the in-itself. … We see that consciousness now has two objects: one is the first in-itself, the second is the being-for-consciousness of this in-itself. The latter appears at first sight to be merely the reflection of consciousness into itself, i.e., what consciousness has in mind is not an object, but only its knowledge of that first object. But … the first object, in being known, is altered for consciousness; it ceases to be the in-itself, and becomes something that is the in-itself only for consciousness. And this then is the True: the being-for-consciousness of this in-itself. Or, in other words, this is the essence, or the object of consciousness. This new object contains the nothingness of the first, it is what experience has made of it.

[ibid., p. 55]

The sequence of experiences undergone by consciousness is generated by a continual process that Hegel calls “determinate negation.” The distinguishing characteristic of any particular object is mediated by the specificity of the object through whose negation it arises. Since each object harbors a necessary relation to its antithesis, the progressive unfolding of the experience of consciousness is not arbitrary and inflicted in an external manner but grows out of a necessary process of immanent dialectical development. The stages through which spirit passes in moving toward its full realization form a necessary progression in which beginning and end are implicitly identical.20 In itself, spiritlessness is spirit; of itself, inauthentic selfhood advances to authentic individuality. The apprehension of the necessity of this dialectical progression is the lesson taught by the reader's phenomenological guide. Hegel summarizes:

Our account implied that our knowledge of the first object, or the being-for-consciousness of the first in-itself, itself becomes the second object. It usually seems to be the case, on the contrary, that our experience of the untruth of our first notion comes by way of a second object which we come upon by chance and externally, so that our part in all this is simply the pure apprehension of what is in and for itself. From the present viewpoint, however, the new object shows itself to have come about through a reversal of consciousness itself. This way of looking at the matter is something contributed by us, by means of which the succession of experiences through which consciousness passes is raised into a scientific progression—but it is not known to the consciousness that we are observing.

[Phenomenology, pp. 55-56]

Despite his persistent pedagogical purpose, Hegel, in one sense, has nothing to teach his pupil. His method of educating is Socratic to the extent that it seeks to render the implicit explicit. As Hyppolite observes, “The rise of empirical consciousness to absolute knowledge is possible only if the necessary stages of its ascent are discovered within it. These stages are still within it; all that is needed is that it descend into the interiority of memory by an action comparable to Platonic recollection” (1974, p. 39). Through the process of recollection (Er-innerung), the individual who follows Hegel's guidance internalizes or appropriates as his own the stages necessary for full self-realization. Prior to this inwardization, the phases of spirit's cultivation remain external to one another in outward temporal dispersion (Entäusserung). Recollection renders spirit transparent to itself and brings a fulfillment that “consists in perfectly knowing what it is, in knowing its substance” (Phenomenology, p. 492).21 The journey Hegel invites his reader to undertake turns out to be a voyage of self-discovery whose destination is spirit's adequate comprehension of the actuality it has become.


Our consideration of Kierkegaard's analysis of his age has disclosed that he holds spiritlessness to arise from the dissipation of individual selfhood created by abstract reflection. When reflection obscures vital distinctions and “dispels the urge to decision,” the individual becomes absent to himself—a mere “spectator” of his own life, devoid of the passionate “inwardness” constitutive of genuine individuality (Two Ages, pp. 76, 81, 80). Kierkegaard is not suggesting a thoroughgoing condemnation of all reflection. To the contrary, responsible deliberation is a presupposition of free selfhood. But when carried to extremes, reflection can paralyze decisive action. “Reflection is not the evil,” Kierkegaard insists, “but a standing state of reflection and a standstill in reflection are the fraud and the corruption, which by transforming the conditions for action into means of escape lead to dissipation” (p. 96). Although he acknowledges that “beyond a doubt there is no task and effort more difficult than to extricate oneself from the temptations of reflection” (p. 77), Kierkegaard believes that precisely such an undertaking is required to overcome the spiritless dissipation of his day. The purpose of Kierkegaard's diverse writings is to engender inwardness by making people aware of the depths to which they have fallen and by creating the possibility for them to begin the journey from despair to realized selfhood. Since he is convinced that “rescue comes only through the essentiality of the religious in the single individual” (p. 88), Kierkegaard's works have from the outset a religious orientation. More specifically, Kierkegaard's belief that concrete individuality can be fully actualized only through Christian existence leads him to conclude in The Point of View for My Work as an Author (posthumous) that the sole antidote to spiritlessness is the clarification of “how to become a Christian” (p. 13). He explains: “The contents of this little book affirm, then, what I truly am as an author, that I am and was a religious author, that the whole of my work as an author is related to Christianity, to the problem ‘of becoming a Christian,’ with a direct or indirect polemic against the monstrous illusion that in such a land as ours all are Christians of a sort” (pp. 5-6).

Paradoxically, however, Kierkegaard could combat the pathological reflection of his age only reflectively. “My task,” he writes, “was to cast Christianity into reflection, not poetically to idealize it (for the essentially Christian, after all, is itself the ideal) but with poetic fervor to present the total ideality at its most ideal—always ending with: I am not that, but I strive” (Journals, no. 6511). An aesthetic age calls for an aesthetic education. Kierkegaard, like Hegel, could not accomplish his end by attempting to force his viewpoint on others. His understanding of the nature of free selfhood requires him to employ a method that constantly respects the integrity of the individual. Consequently, in a manner similar to Hegel, Kierkegaard decides that spiritlessness can be overcome most effectively by the depiction of alternative forms of life that provide the reader the occasion for self-examination and self-judgment. The various personae of Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship comprise the cast of characters through which the dramatic struggle toward authentic selfhood is acted out.

Each pseudonym represents a particular shape of consciousness, form of life, type of selfhood. In order to present every standpoint as completely and as accurately as possible, Kierkegaard, like Hegel, withdraws and allows each persona to speak for itself. In the course of the ensuing dialogue, the characters uncover the unique contours, nagging tensions, and destructive contradictions of their different perspectives. Taken together, the pseudonyms present a coherent account of what amounts to a phenomenology of spirit analogous, though alternative, to the course plotted by Hegel. The Kierkegaardian forms of life are arranged as dialectical stages in a progressive movement toward genuine individuality. As educator, Kierkegaard hopes to enable the reader to achieve more adequate self-knowledge and to provide the occasion for the reader's movement from spiritlessness to spirit. In intention and execution, therefore, there are significant parallels between the philosophical and theological projects of Hegel and Kierkegaard.

Despite these noteworthy similarities, equally essential differences distinguish their works. Most important in this context, Kierkegaard's pseudonyms do not represent descriptions of the stages through which consciousness has passed in the process of its actualization. The various personae are imaginative projections of existential possibilities that might be realized in the course of becoming an authentic individual. In place of Hegel's theoretical description of spirit's actuality, Kierkegaard creates poeticized possibilities that confront the sojourner along life's way. Poiesis, not theoria, is Kierkegaard's element. To understand more adequately the distinctive features of Kierkegaard's aesthetic education, we must consider his interpretation of the person of the poet and the nature of the poetic work of art.22

We have already noted that Kierkegaard regards himself as “essentially a poet” (Journals, no. 6383). In the following Journal entry, he identifies the distinguishing characteristic of a poet: “What is it to be a poet? It is to have one's own personal life, one's actuality in categories completely different from those of one's poetic production, to be related to the ideal only in imagination, so that one's personal life is more or less a satire on the poetry and on oneself” (no. 6300). Put differently, the poet's thought and being, word and deed, ideality and reality, do not coincide, but contradict one another. Since he sees his “purely ideal task” as involving “casting Christianity completely and wholly into reflection” (no. 6237), Kierkegaard ever insists that he is not a Christian. The denial of the poet masks a definite pedagogical strategy.

[If] it is an illusion that all are Christians—and if there is anything to be done about it, it must be done indirectly, not by one who vociferously proclaims himself an extraordinary Christian, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to declare that he is not a Christian at all. That is, one must approach from behind the person who is under an illusion. Instead of wishing to have an advantage of being oneself that rare thing, a Christian, one must let the prospective captive enjoy the advantage of being the Christian, and for one's own part have resignation enough to be the one who is far behind—otherwise one will certainly not get the man out of his illusion, a thing which is difficult enough in any case.

[Point of View, pp. 24-25]

Kierkegaard's interpretation of the poet represents his version of the principle of Socratic ignorance. In fact, Kierkegaard's educational technique is thoroughly informed by his appropriation of the central features of Socratic method. While Kierkegaard's understanding of Socrates is profoundly influenced by Hegel's consideration of Socrates' viewpoint, his criticisms of Hegel's analysis point to crucial differences between their methodological commitments. Kierkegaard's interpretation of Socrates consists of a radicalization of Hegel's insights. Here as elsewhere, Kierkegaard assumes Hegel's perspective in order to negate it.23 Kierkegaard admits that Hegel correctly identifies the essence of the Socratic position as irony. Moreover, he agrees with Hegel's definition of irony as “infinite absolute negativity” (Concept of Irony, p. 287). Hegel's error lay in his failure to carry through his insight with sufficient rigor. Rather than allowing Socrates to remain “infinitely negative,” Hegel urges him toward a positive resolution of the dilemmas he discovers. Consequently, irony becomes a “mastered moment”; negativity ceases to be a perduring perspective and is itself negated by the “higher” positivity it is supposed to generate.

In an important passage in his magister dissertation, Kierkegaard distinguishes his reading of Socrates from that of Hegel.24

It is towards this point of exhibiting Socrates as the founder of morality that Hegel unilaterally allows his conception of Socrates to gravitate. It is the Idea of the good that he seeks to claim for Socrates, but this causes him some embarrassment when he attempts to show how Socrates has conceived the good. It is essentially here that the difficulty with Hegel's conception of Socrates lies, namely the attempt is constantly made to show how Socrates has conceived the good. But what is even worse, so it seems to me, is that the direction of the current in Socrates' life is not faithfully maintained. The movement in Socrates is to come to the good. His significance for the development of the world is to arrive at this (not at one point to have arrived at this). His significance for his contemporaries is that they arrived at this. Now this does not mean that he arrived at this toward the end of his life, as it were, but that his life was constantly to come to this and to cause others to do the same. … He did not do this once and for all, but he did this with every individual. He began wherever the individual might find himself, and soon he was thoroughly involved in issuing clearance papers for each one of them. But as soon as he had ferried one of them over he immediately turned back for another. No actuality could withstand him, yet that which became visible was ideality in the most fleeting suggestion of its faintest configuration, that is, as infinitely abstract. … Socrates ferried the individual from reality over to ideality, and ideal infinity, as infinite negativity, became the nothingness into which he made the whole manifold of reality disappear. … Actuality, by means of the absolute, became nothingness, but the absolute was in turn nothingness. In order to be able to maintain Socrates at this point, in order never to forget that the content of his life was to undertake this movement at every moment, one must bear in mind his significance as a divine missionary. Yet this has been ignored by Hegel, although Socrates himself places much emphasis upon it.

[Irony, pp. 254-55]

According to Kierkegaard, Hegel does not adequately distinguish Socrates' existential and Plato's speculative dialectic. Therefore, at Hegel's hands, Socratic questioning and irresolution become speculative answering and resolution. “One may ask a question,” Kierkegaard points out, “for the purpose of obtaining an answer containing the desired content, so that the more one questions, the deeper and more meaningful becomes the answer; or one may ask a question not in the interest of obtaining an answer, but to suck out the apparent content with a question and leave only an emptiness remaining. The first method naturally presupposes a content, the second an emptiness; the first is the speculative, the second the ironic. Now it was the latter method which was especially practised by Socrates” (ibid., p. 73).

To correct the errors into which Hegel's interpretation falls, one need simply return to the Hegelian notion of “infinite absolute negativity” and apply it consistently to the person and position of Socrates. For Kierkegaard, Socrates' standpoint is “exclusively ironic” (ibid., p. 232). He never allows negativity to give way to a “higher” positivity; the disquiet of ignorance always fails to win the peace of knowledge. “The reason Socrates could content himself with this ignorance was because he had no deeper speculative need. Instead of pacifying this negativity speculatively, he pacified it far more through the eternal unrest wherein he repeated the same process with each particular individual” (p. 201). Unlike the systematic philosopher, the Socratic educator offers no results. Question marks and not periods punctuate his dialogue.

The attraction Socrates exercises over Kierkegaard becomes more understandable when we recall that he sees the spiritlessness of modernity as arising from the complete identification of the individual with his sociocultural milieu. Kierkegaard maintains that the entire point of Socratic questioning is to raise “the individual out of immediate existence” (p. 85), or to precipitate the differentiation between self and social totality. “By means of his questions,” Socrates “sawed through the virgin forest of substantial consciousness in all quietude, and when everything was ready, all these formations suddenly disappeared and his mind's eye enjoyed a prospect such as it had never before seen” (p. 215). This prospect is nothing less than the free individual that Socrates' “art of midwifery” seeks to bring to birth. Such a birth is possible, however, only if “the umbilical cord of substantiality” (p. 215) is severed. Kierkegaard contends that Socratic midwifery involves a justified deception intended to dispel the interlocutor's illusions. The ignorance resulting from this dis-illusionment forms “the nothingness from which a beginning must be made” (p. 222). Poetic and ironic dissimulation is never without pedagogical purpose, for it attempts “to mystify the surrounding world not so much in order to conceal itself as to induce others to reveal themselves” (p. 268). To understand the nature of this evoked self-revelation, we must turn our attention from the person of the poet to the nature of the poem. As Mackey points out:

The speech of a poet does not utter his inner states, but rather builds meanings into a free-standing structure of language. Paradox, self-concealment, plural connotations, distentions of metaphor and the like are the shears by which he clips the umbilical of his fancy's child and sends it out on its own. His art is not the externalizing of himself, but the objectifying of a work of words: poiesis. What the poet produces is a verbal object (poiema) in which meanings, released from any personal interest he may vest in them, are neither affirmed nor denied, but simply placed. A poem in this sense does not mean—it does not urge the feelings and opinions of the poet on the reader. It is—as a thing made it is self-sufficient (perfectum) and bears no message not indigenous to its perfection. But the poetic object, however much it dispatches the poet's words from the poet, is nevertheless an object (objectum, Gegenstand) and as such commands a response.

[Mackey, pp. 284-85]

To command such a response, Kierkegaard composes his pseudonymous authorship. He explains that “a pseudonym is excellent for accentuating a point, a stance, a position. It creates a poetic person.”25 The “poeticized personalities” who act out the Kierkegaardian drama of existence are “personified possibilities,”26 imaginative projections of fantastic, fictitious forms of life that can serve as models for the despairing person's self-interpretation and self-judgment. The ideality of these imagined possibilities is essential to their function in Kierkegaard's aesthetic education.

Drawing on his understanding of Hegelian aesthetics, Kierkegaard maintains that the genuine work of art embodies an ideal form in the medium singularly appropriate to the idea it seeks to express. As Crites indicates, “the idea comes to consciousness only in the process of artistic creation itself, and only in the appropriate medium. The problem in art, as Hegel had shown, is to shape the material or medium in such a way that it will become as transparent as possible to its proper idea, so that the idea can, as it were, shine through the medium employed.”27 This artistic transparency is achieved only through abstraction from the tensions of finitude. The timeless ideality of the work of art articulates pure possibilities that stand in marked contrast to the confusing options faced in temporal experience. This atemporal ideality provides the occasion for aesthetic education. Borrowing a term from Hegel and the Platonic tradition, Kierkegaard argues that a person apprehends the aesthetic object by a process of “recollection.” In recollection, one grasps ideal forms that are antecedent to and the presupposition of temporal existence. Aesthetic education affords the opportunity for self-clarification by transporting the individual from the conflicts and confusions of actual life to the momentary repose and clarity of the ideal realm of pure possibility. To attempt to remain in such aesthetic repose is, however, to fall victim to spiritlessness. Kierkegaard indicates that “art and poetry have been called anticipations of the eternal. If one desires to speak in this fashion, one must nevertheless note that art and poetry are not essentially related to an existing individual; for their contemplative enjoyment, the joy over what is beautiful, is disinterested, and the spectator of the work of art is contemplatively outside himself qua existing individual” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 277 n.).

In contrast to Hegel, Kierkegaard's aesthetic education is not an end in itself but has an unaesthetic, ethical purpose. On the one hand, “The aesthetic and intellectual principle is that no reality is thought or understood until its esse has been resolved into its posse.” On the other, “The ethical principle is that no possibility is understood until each posse has really become an esse” (p. 288). Reflection becomes doubly reflected as recollection gives way to repetition. Explaining his poetic productions, Kierkegaard, under the guise of Johannes Climacus, writes: “A communication in the form of a possibility compels the recipient to face the problem of existing in it, so far as this is possible between man and man” (p. 320). Through his pseudonymous authorship, Kierkegaard attempts to extricate his reader from “the temptations of reflection” by occasioning a crisis of decision. His poeticized personalities force the reader to confront difficult choices; they lay a claim upon the will as well as upon the imagination. Pure possibilities, of course, must initially be grasped reflectively. But this reflective apprehension of imagined ideality is the propaedeutic to the existential act of “double reflection” in which possibility becomes actual and ideality is reflected in reality by means of the individual's free decision. A person does not achieve transparency (Gjennemsigtighed) simply by the appreciation of an ideality already implicit in his reality, but by volitional activity in which he struggles to become a living expression of the ideal he has conceived. In striving to “reduplicate” concept in being, one attempts to “‘exist’ in what one understands.”28 To the extent that this endeavor is successful, truth develops or the individual becomes truthful.

With respect to human existence, the identity of thought and being definitive of truth is not primordial but is historically emergent, born of the individual's free activity. Kierkegaard contends that in ethical and religious matters, “truth is subjectivity,” or, as he explains, “An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual” (Postscript, p. 182). The important phrase in this definition for our purpose is “an appropriation-process” (Tilegnelse). Because the existing individual is in a state of becoming, his life is a constant approximation of the ideals he conceives. “Subjectivity” indicates the process by which an individual appropriates what he thinks, or constitutes his actuality by realizing his possibilities. Kierkegaard proceeds to identify subjectivity with truth for the existing individual: “The truth consists in nothing else than the self-activity of personal appropriation” (p. 217). As should be clear, this argument is not intended to deny the notion of truth as the conformity of thought and being. However, because the existing individual is in a process of becoming, Kierkegaard holds that such conformity is never reached as long as existence continues but remains an ideal that is asymptotically approximated. “Not for a single moment is it forgotten that the subject is an existing individual, and that existence is a process of becoming, and that therefore the notion of the truth as identity of thought and being is a chimera of abstraction, in its truth only an expectation of the creature; not because truth is not such an identity, but because the knower is an existing individual for whom the truth cannot be such an identity as long as he lives in time” (p. 176).

This understanding of the nature of religious truth further illuminates Kierkegaard's pedagogical strategy. Since true selfhood presupposes an individual's free actualization of possibility, the teacher must communicate with the pupil in an indirect manner. Instead of constantly identifying with and offering direct guidance to the reader,29 the author must withdraw himself from the dialogic relation and leave the reader alone with imagined possibilities expressed in the poetic work. By insisting on the disparity between his ideas and his life, the poet directs the reader away from his person and toward his poetic creation. Kierkegaard's pseudonymity is the curtain separating him from the drama he stages. His multiple literary devices seek to focus the reader's attention on the play his personae enact rather than on the complex behind-the-scenes maneuvers necessary to mount the production.

For Kierkegaard, however, observation of the drama is not itself cathartic. The purification of spirit that cures the sickness unto death lies not in passive speculation but in practical action. Theoretical reflection is a necessary but not sufficient condition of the development of the inwardness necessary for authentic selfhood. To recollection must be added repetition, a movement Hegel never makes.

The dialectic of repetition is easy; for what is repeated has been, or it could not be repeated, but precisely the fact that it has been makes the repetition something new. When the Greeks said that all knowledge is recollection, they were saying that everything that comes into existence has been. When one says that life is a repetition, one is saying that the existence that has been now becomes. If one has neither the category of recollection nor that of repetition, the whole of life is dissolved into a vain and empty noise. Recollection is the pagan life-outlook, repetition is the modern. Repetition is the interest of metaphysics, and also the interest on which metaphysics is stranded; repetition is the solution of every ethical outlook; repetition is the conditio sine qua non for every dogmatic problem.

[Repetition, p. 149]

From Kierkegaard's perspective, inwardness is not the result of a retrospective dialectic of recollection that grasps reality as the necessary outworking of ideality. To the contrary, inwardness presupposes a prospective dialectic of repetition that posits an abyss between ideality and actuality which can be bridged only by the contingent leap of the free individual. The stages of Kierkegaard's journey to selfhood are not internally related and do not constitute a necessary progression. They represent distinct forms of life that can be realized only if they are willed by the individual. In a sense, Kierkegaard, too, has nothing to teach his pupil. He questions, but does not answer—his aesthetic education ends without result. He confesses that the “result is not in my power; it depends upon so many things, and above all it depends upon whether he [i.e., the reader] will or not. In all eternity it is impossible for me to compel a person to accept an opinion, a conviction, a belief. But one thing I can do: I can compel him to take notice. In one sense this is the first thing, for it is the condition antecedent to the next thing, i.e., the acceptance of an opinion, a conviction, a belief. In another sense it is the last—if that is, he will not take the next step” (Point of View, p. 35). The journey to which Kierkegaard calls his reader is unending. Omega ever recedes, for the concluding chapter of the drama of selfhood can only be written after the final curtain falls.


Though our course has been long, our conclusion can be brief. The intricate philosophical and theological works of Hegel and Kierkegaard share a common purpose: they seek to meet the need of the age by providing an aesthetic education that leads the individual from spiritlessness to spirit, from bondage to freedom, from inauthentic to authentic selfhood. And yet their educational journeys lead in opposite directions. What Hegel regards as self-realization Kierkegaard sees as self-alienation, and what Hegel interprets as self-estrangement is for Kierkegaard self-fulfillment. Conversely, what Kierkegaard views as authentic selfhood, Hegel believes to be inauthentic selfhood, and what Kierkegaard sees as inauthenticity is for Hegel authenticity. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit leads the reader to the contemplative re-cognition of the ideality of actuality through cognitive recollection. Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship leads the reader to the brink of decision by presenting idealities yet to be actualized through volitional repetition.

In light of such significant differences, the question of the basis of the many ostensible similarities between the undertakings of Hegel and Kierkegaard inevitably arises. We can solve this final puzzle by recalling that both Hegel and Kierkegaard believe their respective pedagogies must begin with the standpoint of the pupil. For Kierkegaard, this means that the educational process has to commence with the spiritlessness of Christendom and its philosophy, Hegelianism. Kierkegaard's appropriation of Hegel's insights is consistently ironic. He assumes Hegel's perspective in order to negate it from within. Like Socrates before him, the poet Kierkegaard “allows the existent to exist though it has no validity for him, yet he pretends that it has and under this guise leads it on towards its certain dissolution. Insofar as the ironic subject is world historically justified, there is in this a unity of what is genial with artistic sobriety and discretion” (Irony, p. 281).


  1. The most important of Ferguson's works for Schiller was his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). For discussions of the significance of Ferguson's arguments, see Abrams, pp. 210 ff.; and Roy Pascal, “‘Bildung’ and the Division of Labor” and “Herder and the Scottish Historical School.”

  2. To be true to the dialectics of Hegel's analysis we must, of course, stress that the converse also obtains—that is, inward conflict manifests itself in outward disintegration.

  3. Hegel explains the significance of this term in relation to Kant's philosophy in the Lesser Logic (The Logic of Hegel, 1968). See pars. 41-45.

  4. For helpful considerations of this aspect of Hegel's relation to romanticism, see Glenn Gray, Hegel's Hellenic Ideal, and Otto Pöggeler, Hegel's Kritik der Romantik. Useful related studies include Jack Forstman, A Romantic Triangle: Schleiermacher and Early German Romanticism, and René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950—The Romantic Age.

  5. See, for example, Schiller's sixth letter in On the Aesthetic Education of Man.

  6. Abrams notes that disappointment with the turn of events in France led many intellectuals to shift the locus of radical change from the sociopolitical arena to the domain of poetry and philosophy. His apt phrase “Apocalypse by Cognition” (pp. 348 ff.) accurately captures the high expectations for revolutionary philosophy and poetry. Left-wing critics of Hegel usually cite this change in his position as a shift to the right that ultimately leads to the reactionary conservatism of his late years in Berlin. Such a reading of Hegel's development, however, oversimplifies his understanding of the proper relation between theory and practice and obscures his view of the nature of philosophical reflection.

  7. In translating this passage, Hong renders “at raisonere” as “to be loquacious.” He points out that although the term can be translated “to reason,” Kierkegaard's intention is better conveyed by “to be loquacious.” In the present context, however, the use of “to reason” more accurately represents the critique of Hegel and Hegelianism implicit in Kierkegaard's remarks.

  8. “Earliest System-Programme of German Idealism,” included in H. S. Harris, Hegel's Development Toward the Sunlight, 1770-1801, p. 511. Although the authorship of this fragment has been the subject of lively scholarly debate over the years, evidence now strongly supports analysts who argue that Hegel penned the work. For a convenient summary of this discussion, see Harris, pp. 249-57.

  9. In his detailed reconstruction of Hegel's early years, Harris argues that “the ambition to be a Volkserzieher” (p. xix) provides a focus around which to organize Hegel's otherwise disparate youthful philosophical wanderings. Although Harris' study is generally quite helpful and most insightful, his effort to view all of Hegel's work prior to 1801 from the perspective of his intention to become a Volkserzieher distorts important aspects of his development and creates needless interpretive problems. Harris' recognition of the importance of this ideal of Hegel's is correct but need not be pursued with such relentlessness to be persuasive. For a suggestive discussion of Kierkegaard's pedagogical preoccupations, see Ronald J. Manheimer, Kierkegaard as Educator.

  10. Other authors who have recognized the similarity between Hegel's Phenomenology and the genre of Bildungsroman include Abrams, pp. 225-37; Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, pp. 11-12; Josiah Royce, Lectures on Modern Idealism, pp. 147 ff. Also see W. H. Bruford, The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: From Humboldt to Thomas Mann. The only author who has suggested a connection between Kierkegaard's works and the Bildungsroman tradition is Louis Mackey, Kierkegaard: A Kind of Poet, pp. 273 ff. Compare Aage Henriksen, Kierkegaards Romaner.

  11. For support of this reading of Kierkegaard's stages, see Mark C. Taylor, Kierkegaard's Pseudonymous Authorship: A Study of Time and the Self, pp. 64 ff.; and Gregor Malantschuk, Kierkegaard's Way to the Truth, pp. 25 ff., 64 ff., and Frihends Problem I Kierkegaards Begrebet Angest, esp. chap. 2.

  12. Hegel's undertaking is not without historical precedent. As Werner Marx points out in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, in both Fichte and Schelling, “we find the idea of a genetic presentation of the build-up of self-consciousness in its various capacities, conceived as a ‘sequence of reflection,’ in which consciousness increasingly improves in self-discernment” (p. xvii). See Fichte's Science of Knowledge and Foundations of the Entire Science of Knowledge and Schelling's Essays to Explain the Idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre and System of Transcendental Idealism. Abrams suggests similarities between Hegel's undertaking in the Phenomenology and Wordsworth's purpose in writing The Prelude (Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, pp. 71 ff.).

  13. The image of the ladder points to an interesting parallel with Kierkegaard's pseudonym Johannes Climacus.

  14. Hegel explains: “But it is just this necessity itself, or the origination of the new object, that presents itself to consciousness without its understanding how this happens, which proceeds for us, as it were, behind the back of consciousness” (p. 56).

  15. This reading of Hegel's phenomenological method is developed insightfully and persuasively by Kenley Dove. See “Hegel's Phenomenological Method,” and “Toward an Interpretation of Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes,” esp. chaps. 2-3.

  16. George Schrader offers an illuminating discussion of the contrast between Hegelian and British empiricism in “Hegel's Contribution to Phenomenology.”

  17. Stephen Crites, “Introduction,” to Kierkegaard's Crisis in the Life of an Actress and Other Essays on Drama. Compare W. Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, p. 164.

  18. Hegel's use of the “we” throughout the Phenomenology has received considerable attention in the secondary literature. See, for example, Dove (1965), chap. 2; John Findlay, Hegel: A Reinterpretation, pp. 87 ff.; Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, pp. 173 ff.; Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure, pp. 3 ff.; R. Kroner, Von Kant bis Hegel, 2: 369 ff.; G. Lukacs, Der junge Hegel: Uber die Beziehungen von Dialektik und Okonomie, pp. 602 ff.; Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, p. 94. None of these authors, however, adequately distinguishes the “we” of the author from the “we” of the reader.

  19. The emphasis on the triplicity of consciousness in the Phenomenology distinguishes this line of analysis from an interpretation such as that of Abrans (pp. 225 ff.), in which consciousness is seen as merely double. If the threefold distinction is allowed to slip into simple duality, Hegel's pedagogical purpose becomes overshadowed by autobiographical preoccupations.

  20. Hegel points out: “Because of this necessity, the way to Science, is itself already Science, and hence, in virtue of its content, is the Science of the experience of consciousness” (Phenomenology, p. 56). In recent years, the question of relationship between the Phenomenology and Hegel's mature system has provoked heated debate among German commentators. The best discussion of the problem is Friedrich Fulda's Das Problem einer Einleitung in Hegels Wissenschaft der Logik.

  21. For the twentieth-century reader, Hegel's recognition of the therapeutic value of recollection suggests interesting parallels with Freud's psychoanalytic method. Consider Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, and Hyppolite, “Hegel's Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis.”

  22. In his excellent study Kierkegaard: A Kind of Poet, Mackey also stresses the importance of Kierkegaard's understanding of poetry and the poet. See esp. chap. 6.

  23. This line of analysis opposes those authors who maintain that in The Concept of Irony Kierkegaard is fundamentally a Hegelian. See, for example, Vilhelm Andersen, Tider og Typer af Dansk Aands, part 2, 2:65-108; and Harold Høffding, Søren Kierkegaard som Filosof.

  24. For helpful discussions of the differences between Hegel's and Kierkegaard's views of Socrates, see Robert L. Perkins, “Hegel and Kierkegaard: Two Critics of Romantic Irony” and “Two Nineteenth-Century Interpretations of Socrates: Hegel and Kierkegaard.”

  25. Papirer, X1 510, in Armed Neutrality and an Open Letter, p. 88. For an elaboration of the points being made here, see Taylor, Kierkegaard's Pseudonymous Authorship, chap. 2.

  26. Paul Holmer, “Kierkegaard and Ethical Theory.” Holmer has analyzed this aspect of Kierkegaard's thought with unusual insight. Compare “Kierkegaard and Religious Propositions” and “On Understanding Kierkegaard.”

  27. Stephen Crites, “Introduction,” Crisis in the Life of an Actress, p. 29. Crites gives an excellent account of Kierkegaard's aesthetic theory and of its relation to Hegel's position. Compare “Pseudonymous Authorship as Art and as Act.” I have benefited greatly from these two essays.

  28. Training in Christianity, p. 133. Elsewhere Kierkegaard explains more fully: “However, coming into existence may present a reduplication, i.e., the possibility of a second coming into existence within the first coming into existence. Here we have the historical in the stricter sense, subject to a dialectic with respect to time. The coming into existence which in this sphere is identical with the coming into existence of nature is a possibility, a possibility which for nature is its whole reality. But this historical coming into existence in the stricter sense is a coming into existence within a coming into existence.” Philosophical Fragments, p. 94.

  29. As Hegel does through the “phenomenological we.”


Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: Norton, 1973.

Andersen, V. Tider og Typer af Dansk Aands. Copenhagen, 1916.

Barrett, W. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Bruford, W. H. The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: From Humboldt to Thomas Mann. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Crites, S. “Introduction.” In S. Kierkegaard, Crisis in the Life of an Actress and Other Essays on Drama. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

———. In the Twilight of Christendom: Hegel vs. Kierkegaard on Faith and History. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1972a.

———. “Pseudonymous Authorship as Art and as Act.” In J. Thompson, ed., Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1972b.

Dove, K. “Toward an Interpretation of Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes.” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1965.

———. “Hegel's Phenomenological Method.” In W. E. Steinkraus, ed., New Studies in Hegel's Philosophy. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Fackenheim, E. L. The Religious Dimension of Hegel's Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967.

Findlay, J. Hegel: A Reinterpretation. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Forstman, J. A Romantic Triangle: Schleiermacher and Early German Romanticism. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1977.

Fulda, F. Das Problem einer Einleitung in Hegel's Wissenschaft der Logik. Frankfurt: V. Kostermann, 1965.

Gray, G. Hegel's Hellenic Ideal. New York: King's Crown Press, 1941.

Habermas, J. Knowledge and Human Interests. Translated by J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Harris, H. S. Hegel's Development Toward the Sunlight, 1770-1801. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Hegel, G. W. F. Briefe von und an Hegel. Vol. 1. Edited by J. Hoffmeister and R. Flechsig. Hamburg: F. Meiner, 1961.

———. The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy. Translated by H. S. Harris and W. Cerf. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977.

———. “Earliest System-Programme of German Idealism.” Included in Harris, 1972.

———. “The German Constitution.” Hegel's Political Writings. Translated by T. M. Knox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

———. The Logic of Hegel. Translated by W. Wallace. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

———. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

———. Philosophy of Right. Translated by T. M. Knox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Heidegger, M. Holzwege. Frankfurt: V. Kostermann, 1957.

Henriksen, A. Kierkegaards Romaner. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1969.

Høffding, H. Søren Kierkegaard som Filosof. Copenhagen, 1892.

Holmer, P. “Kierkegaard and Ethical Theory.” Ethics 63 (1953): 157-70.

———. “Kierkegaard and Religious Propositions.” Journal of Religion 35 (1955): 135-46.

———. “On Understanding Kierkegaard.” In H. A. Johnson and N. Thulstrup, eds., A Kierkegaard Critique. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1962.

Hyppolite, J. “Hegel's Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis.” In W. E. Steinkraus, ed., New Studies in Hegel's Philosophy. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

———. Genesis and Structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by S. Cherniak and J. Heckman. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1974.

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Journals and Papers [1834-55]. Translated and edited by H. and E. Hong. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967.

The Concept of Irony with Constant Reference to Socrates [1841]. Translated by L. M. Capel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology [1843]. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946.

Philosophical Fragments [1844]. Translated by D. Swenson and revised by H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript [1846]. Translated by D. F. Swenson and W. Lowrie. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age: A Literary Review [1846]. Translated by H. and E. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Armed Neutrality and an Open Letter [1849]. Translated and edited by H. and E. Hong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969.

Training in Christianity [1850]. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.

The Point of View for My Work as an Author: A Report to History [1859; posthumous]. Translated by W. Lowrie. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Kroner, R. Von Kant bis Hegel. Naturphilosophie zur Philosophie des Geistes, vol. 2. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1924.

Lukacs, G. Der junge Hegel: Uber die Beziehungen von Dialektik und Okonomie. Zurich: Europa, 1948.

Mackey, L. Kierkegaard: A Kind of Poet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.

Malantschuk, G. Kierkegaard's Way to the Truth. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1968.

———. Frihends Problem I Kierkegaards Begrebet Angest. Copenhagen: Roskenkilde og Bagger, 1971.

Manheimer, R. J. Kierkegaard as Educator. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Marcuse, H. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960.

Marx, W. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: Its Point and Purpose—A Commentary on the Preface and Introduction. Translated by P. Health. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

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———. “‘Bildung’ and the Division of Labor.” In German Studies Presented to Walter Horace Bruford. London, 1962.

Perkins, R. L. “Two Nineteenth-Century Interpretations of Socrates: Hegel and Kierkegaard.” Kierkegaard-Studiet, international edition 4 (1967): 9-14.

———. “Hegel and Kierkegaard: Two Critics of Romantic Irony.” In Hegel in Comparative Literature. Baltimore: St. John's University Press, 1970.

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William Desmond (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Desmond, William. “Hegel, Dialectic, and Deconstruction.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 18, no. 4 (1985): 244-63.

[In the following essay, Desmond contends that, despite their differences, Hegel's dialectic is an important precursor to the theory of deconstructionism.]


The topic of deconstruction is one of the most controversial, if not the most controversial issue, in recent literary theory. A measure of this controversy is the manner in which advocates of deconstruction and its antagonists tend to square off against one another, each confronting his opposite with highly combative rhetoric. The very term “deconstruction” itself carries something of this agonistic spirit. Traditionalists, non-deconstructionists, tend to respond with a matching animus. Yet what is at stake in the controversy is not always adequately spelled out. The deconstructionists do not always present a clear account of the character of their critical strategies. The traditionalists, themselves not always sure of the precise principles of deconstruction, grow uneasy with the practice of the deconstructors. Whatever else is obscure, one thing seems clear on both sides: theory has invaded the sphere of critical practice, in a manner which demarcates this forking of the ways: some exult in the new theoretical liberation; others groan under an excess of theory that they claim carries them from a balanced experience of the literary work itself. The controversy, however we refine further its character, is precipitated at the point of conjunction of philosophical theory and literary, critical practice.

What is further noticeable is that many of those uneasy with deconstruction often refuse to counter it on a full theoretical level.1 Theory, the implication seems to be, is precisely what perennially risks violating the original integrity of the literary work of art. Better to put Satan behind one, than to sup with this devil, however long one's spoon. The command to Satan, however, does not seem to carry much efficacy. This Satan is not a docile boy. We have to sit down to dinner with Lucifer. For deconstruction is a critical strategy that grows out of a set of complex philosophical presuppositions, and only some clarification of these presuppositions will effect any fruitful encounter with it, and perhaps too the countering of some of its subtle deficiencies. This I propose to do here.

We might approach the issue in the following stages. First, we need to indicate some of the historical antecedents of deconstruction. Many critics are not sufficiently familiar with the philosophical influences on, say, Derrida, the high priest of deconstruction. I propose first to look at what I will call the Nietzschean-Heideggerian heritage. Many deconstructionists work in the shadow of Nietzsche and Heidegger, but we also need to notice a great, let us call it, “antishadow,” namely, Hegel. Hegel is the great ancestor and the great antagonist. Much of contemporary European philosophy has reacted to Hegel, but also lived off the supposedly disjecta membra of his system. The historical repudiation of Hegel will provide, I claim, a crucial focus for defining the character of deconstruction. Second, we need to indicate something of the precise character of deconstruction which links it to Hegel and separates it from him. Third, we need to present Hegel's own view, particularly his notion of dialectic as a fruitful foil to deconstruction. My purpose will be to argue that there are profound affinities between dialectic and deconstruction, though there is a decisive parting of perspectives on this central issue. This central issue, let us call it the problem of the wholeness of the art work, will occupy our final reflections. Here, I intend to argue that Hegel's dialectic not only helps to do justice to the complexity of the literary work, as rightly emphasized by deconstruction; it also preserves its character of wholeness. The suspicion that this essential wholeness dissolves at the hands of the deconstructionists is one of the chief sources of the sense of unease with deconstruction. The notion of dialectic, I will argue, points to the literary work as an inherently complex whole, a whole which entails no denial of its dynamic dimension. Dialectic, to anticipate, facilitates a joint or double affirmation of the wholeness and dynamism of the art work. Deconstruction, by contrast, tends to accentuate dynamism in a manner which risks dissolving wholeness. Let us now see in more detail what this might mean.


Thinkers who determine the discourse of the deconstructionists are many, ranging from Marx to Lacan, from Freud to Saussure. Since our focus here is on the conjunction of philosophy and literary theory, two important figures stand out: Nietzsche and Heidegger. Both of these in turn define an important attitude to Hegel and to the entire tradition of western metaphysics.

Let us first look at Nietzsche. As is well known, Nietzsche exploits the Dionysian and Apollonian principles to understand Greek tragedy, and indeed the whole of art and life. The Apollonian principle defines that dimension of harmonious beauty where form, perfection, and wholeness predominate. The Dionysian principle refers us to the promiscuous energy of life itself, the Bacchanalian formless intoxication which destroys the limits of form, surpassing every stabilized perfection or fixed unity. Initially, Nietzsche conceived of art as the balance of these two principles, roughly corresponding to Schiller's Formtrieb and Stofftrieb, or what above I called art's wholeness and art's dynamism. In time, however, the Dionysian, it seems, comes to predominance. Dynamism, Dionysus, or more abstractly, the Will to Power, is not just one principle alongside another equally fundamental principle. Dionysus, the Will to Power, becomes the basic character of all being, as Heidegger points out.2 The Will to Power becomes the Whole.

Why should this be important? Its importance here lies in the implication for the notion of form generally, and artistic form particularly. How so? Artistic form can never be ultimate, and becomes a provisional stabilization of the basic energy of being, the Will to Power. Nevertheless, we are always tempted to treat provisional forms or structures as if they were ultimate and unsurpassable. We tend to fix the form. But this is to forget what cannot be completely encompassed or concretized in any form or structure, the Dionysian Will to Power. Form, therefore, may serve to hide as much as it discloses. Or stronger, it represses what it cannot directly, consciously embrace. Form, looked at this way, inevitably contains a drift towards a denial, towards a falsification. To counter this drift, we need to “break the form,” in Harold Bloom's phrase.3 We need to let the repressed return and reassert itself. (The connection with Freud is strong here.) We need to let the energy of Dionysus dissolve the excessively congealed structures of Apollo. Applying these philosophical ideas to the literary work, we need to engage in a deconstruction of its seemingly obvious meaning, and expose the lacunae, the repressed, unspoken elements that a more simple reading glosses over.

Mention of the “obvious meaning” brings us to a second element in the Nietzschean legacy, namely, its antagonism to traditional metaphysics, said to be epitomized in the person of Plato.4 Plato versus Homer: this is life's basic antagonism, Nietzsche exclaimed, and sides with Homer.5 The viewpoint here is that the artist is closer to the Dionysian truth of things, while the metaphysician, Plato, exaggerates the Apollonian to the point of poisoning it. How so? Nietzsche holds that Plato's resort to the ideal entails a flight from, an evasion of the real. The eide, the ideas, the forms, then become an attempt to substitute an eternal world of pure Being for the visible world of Becoming. What characterizes eternal Being is pure stasis: the Forms are dead. Consequently, the Platonic transcendence devalues Becoming, the very ground out of which grows art, for Nietzsche the chief affirmer of life's will to power. Platonism is nihilism,6 for in substituting the fixed unity of eternal form for the pulsing multiplicity of the here and now, it reduces, negates the wealth of this given world. Once again, the forms must be dismantled, deformed, deconstructed, or in Nietzsche's phrase, the “Innocence of Becoming” must be restored once again. Becoming is without structure, a diversification without any absolute unity, a play of energies that never finally rests in any one definitive form. The dualisms of Platonic metaphysics, the oppositions it creates between body and soul, matter and form, time and eternity, art and philosophy, must be unmasked for their cowardice before purposeless becoming. The forms are not just there eternally; man, as will to power, puts the structure, the purpose into sheer becoming.7 Acknowledging this his own authorship of fixed structure, he must also be courageous enough to undo his work, to deconstruct what he has constructed and so undermine the illusion of an eternal permanence. As Nietzsche repeatedly asserts: creating and destroying are always found together. We have it in an immortal phrase in which dynamism is exalted over definite form, and its explosive, that is, destructive power disclosed, when Nietzsche proclaims in Ecce Homo: I am not a man; I am dynamite!

The obsession with fixed form, or the “obvious meaning” leads to this further consequence. Put succinctly, in the hands of the Platonists, it replaces art with logic. Discursive logos comes to predominance over poeisis and mythos. Logic particularly, Nietzsche implies, lends itself to a certain kind of illusion of unity, or unitary meaning.8 That is, the ideal of logic tends to be that of a univocal language. Logic insists on either the repudiation or resolution of contradictions. Opposed meanings either must be reduced to one single univocal sense, or else the opposition in question rejected as a transgression of meaning. In insisting on the ideal of univocal meaning, logic seems to seek to reduce language to a manipulable system, a lawful and rulebound system, a total, ordered structure within which everything has one definite place. Since the language of poetry is conspicuous by its lack of univocal language, it becomes logically suspect, indeed suspect to the point of being exiled from Plato's ideal city. The non-univocal language of poetry is now held secondary, parasitical on the ideal logical language of univocity. For Nietzsche this is another reversal of the true situation. It is poetry that is the more primordial. Univocal language is an impoverished version of this more primordial utterance. If I can adapt the title of one of Nietzsche's works, we need a Genealogy of Logic which will restore language from its deformation by the logic of univocity. What is concealed in the univocal ideal must be brought out. The concealed equivocations and contradictions must be coaxed into the open. To make clear a new space for the play of poetry, we need a critique, a taking apart, a deconstruction of this logical ideal.

Heidegger carries forward into the twentieth century and develops further some of these themes.9 The tradition of the west, he puts it, is essential logocentric, but this logocentrism tends to forget the source of truth. Primordial truth is not the simple, referential correspondence between definite propositions and a fixed external reality, but an event of disclosure, an unconcealing in aletheia. The Presocratic philosophers were closer to primordial truth, but with Socrates and Plato, and borne on by Aristotle and other great metaphysicians, a narrowing of the notion of truth occurs under the aegis of the logical ideal. The result is a forgetfulness of Being. The Platonic eidos or form secretly contains a will to power which determines the subsequent history of occidental metaphysics, which now devalues its grand heritage and ends in nihilism. But this end, nihilism, is implicit in the logocentric beginning itself, for both logocentrism and nihilism define different but joined extremes along the spectrum of the forgetfulness of Being. To recover, uncover again what is thus covered in this forgetting, we require a “destruction” (Destruktion) of metaphysics, and its overcoming (Überwindung). The Heideggerian “destruction,” of course, has been the focus of intense debate, and its defenders have denied that it is an essentially negative enterprise. The tradition of metaphysics, they insist, must be dismantled, to allow what is “unsaid,” “unthought,” and “unspoken” in it to show itself.10 The tradition of metaphysics thus becomes a vast text for deconstruction, as is made plain in Heidegger's own dialogue with so many thinkers from that tradition. The hidden tensions in the tradition must be brought to light, and particularly the dualisms and complementary oppositions of soul and body and so on that mark the western tradition since Plato. In the tension of these oppositions, a forgetfulness of Being may be detected. Hence the interrogation of these metaphysical oppositions may help us to renew the question of Being, and so alleviate and perhaps surpass the result of this forgetfulness, namely, nihilism.

I will turn to Hegel's dialectic later, but here we must note that Hegel functions as a kind of antipodes to some of the Nietzschean and Heideggerian emphases. What is the received picture of Hegel relevant here? Hegel develops, it is said, to the highest degree possible, the themes of western metaphysics, and by so developing them rounds off this tradition in an unsurpassable way.11 Hegel himself seems to concur with this assessment. First, Hegel seems to be the logocentric philosopher par excellence. The real is the rational, the rational is the real, he asserts. Is not this to carry western logos further than Plato or any other? Indeed, Hegel's link with and transformation of the rationalist-idealist tradition is revealed in its extremity in that the highest category in his Logic, or Being in its richest determination, is the Absolute Idea. Moreover, Hegel holds to the necessity of grasping truth in the highest form, that is, in the form of system. Between system and Dionysus stands an absolutization of the Apollonian imperative, it would seem. Again, the Hegelian system seems to throw its order over things in a totalizing manner. No region of being seems to be exempt from its imperious sway. The ambition of the system seems only exhausted before the totality. Does not Hegel attempt to encompass the entirety of history as essential stages of a dialectical progress? More pointedly for present purposes, does he not subordinate art to philosophy? All these points are interpreted as showing forth the will to power in its most exalted and extremist form. The suspicion seems to be confirmed when Hegel implies that with him philosophy comes to a completion or an unsurpassable closure. I will indicate later that a more “open” reading of Hegel is possible. Nevertheless, the above account is perhaps the received, I almost said, frozen picture of Hegel. Given this, and given Hegel's purported propensity to snare himself in every trap that the Nietzschean heritage claims to expose, what great thinker seems more ripe for deconstruction?


Before touching further on this question, we need to state as succinctly as possible what is involved in deconstruction itself, given the guidelines of our historical remarks. We can summarize what is at stake here by confining ourselves to four main points: first, concerning the nature of language; second, concerning the character of critical analysis; third, concerning the limitations of the univocal ideal; fourth, concerning the inescapability of the equivocal.

First, deconstruction is a critical strategy consonant with a particular interpretation of language. On this interpretation language functions as an autonomous power. Thus, following Heidegger, deconstructionists are often fond of saying that man does not think with language, rather language thinks with and through man. Through this autonomous power more is meant than any particular speaker intends. Likewise, more is contained in language than any particular interpretation can comprehend. Every effort to pin down the strict meaning of language runs against a limit of failure. As Derrida puts it: the field of language lacks a center; rather language is defined by a free play of substitutions.12 Language is an endless “dissemination” of itself, a diversification without absolute integration, a plurality of elusive signs that cannot be encapsulated within an encompassing totality. Consequently, in the interpretation of literary texts, there is no one definitive meaning which one definitive interpretation can exhaustively articulate. Indeed the inexhaustibility of language, should we be attentive to it, invariably presents us with a recalcitrance, an impasse, an aporia, a breakdown we cannot transcend. Any reading of a text which intends to be an absolute reading is not only a misinterpretation of language in its free play. Any absolute reading is an impossibility.

This is related to our second point: deconstruction as a strategy of critical analysis. For the naive temptation of the reader is precisely to think that his reading of language has, in fact, genuinely succeeded in its grasp of meaning. Deconstruction, by contrast, is a technique for disillusioning the reader with regard to this naive faith. The “naive” reader, trusting the surface of language, erects his partial interpretation into a total interpretation. Deconstruction exposes or attempted to expose the partiality of the partial, not by itself giving an absolute reading, but by attempting to show that no absolute reading at all is possible. On the positive side, the intention is to return the interpreting reader to the text, open to it, as it were, more humbly in his disillusion. It is important to reiterate that deconstruction is a strategy of analysis, albeit a form of subversive analysis. What “analysis” does is to confront an initially complex phenomenon which we tend to think we have mastered. In setting out more explicitly the elements of its complexity, this faith in our mastery is questioned and undermined. By “taking apart,” “breaking down,” the spontaneous and naive response, we open up this complexity in its inherent richness. The poetic work especially lends itself to the revelation of this inherent richness of language.

This inherent richness might be granted by many who do not practise deconstructive strategies, and so might seem innocuous. However, it is in relation to the limits of the univocal ideal, our third point, that the deconstructionist attempts to specify the peculiarities of this richness. For it the univocal ideal of language, said to be intimately lodged in the logocentrism of western metaphysics, is what primarily bars the interpreting consciousness from freely entering the Aladdin's cave of language. Logocentrism, univocity is ingrained so deeply in the texture of western consciousness, that it is all but impossible to acknowledge its presence. The univocal sense, logocentrism, works through us, ferments in the western mind, like a Heideggerian destiny. Our interpreting powers are determined in that direction, and only by a kind of hermeneutical wrench—the violent interpretation of deconstruction itself—can we free ourselves, or if not free ourselves at least become self-conscious, of this pervasive orientation. Even the deconstructionist himself does not claim complete liberty from this determination of the mind. As himself a product of the history of a western metaphysics, the logocentric ideal nests also in his own involvements with language.

The bewitching spell of univocal logocentrism, nevertheless, can be partly dispelled through deconstructive analysis. Univocal language, if subjected to close scrutiny, will invariably show its limitations, and moreover let this limitation emerge from within language itself. This brings me to my fourth point: the inescapability of the equivocal.13 For, if treated with deconstructive analysis, univocal language shows itself to contain an entire world of ambiguities and ambivalences. The univocal word seems to have one meaning and one only. But it often hides a plurality of meanings, some of which are antagonistic and contradictory. The univocal word, the deconstructionist indicates, is a word divided against itself, and against other words. The Apollonian surface of calm, unitary significance yields to a Dionysian tumult of warring words. Again, also reminiscent of the Nietzschean-Heideggerian critique of metaphysics, the deconstructive critic is a virtuoso of discovering in language hidden polarities and oppositions, inversions and reversals, doublings and mirrorings. Indeed, the impression is often created that the poem, say, becomes a disconcerting hall of distorting mirrors: we have nothing but a plurality of images without a fixed or stable original. There is no original—no author, or fixed subject that can be solidly represented, no final, finalizing representation that will restore all to stability. We have the scattering of images, related and unrelated, one image developing into another image, another distorting and subverting the first, an incessant flux of metaphors in ceaseless transformation and reversal.14 Difference, sheer difference, or multiplicity without an enjoining unity, is the keynote of this world. In this case sheer difference means the reduction of univocity to the equivocal. Univocity reduces the differences of multiple meanings to one central, determinate sense. Equivocity scatters again this one central meaning into a multiplicity without center or unity. Since, as Derrida says, the field of discourse lacks any center, deconstruction must aim to bring home to us this lack. It does so, one is tempted to say, by satiating us with an excess of equivocations. This may seem perverse to those supped on the more sparse economy of univocity. But this is the deconstructionists' whole point: it is the inherent intricacy of language itself that throws up this equivocal fare.


We now turn to Hegel's dialectic, again confining ourselves to those points relevant to the issue of deconstruction. The suggestion here is that many of the themes implicit in the strategy of deconstruction are articulated in Hegel's view of dialectic. Indeed they display close affinities, even if, in the final analysis, as we shall see, they diverge in response to the crucial question of the wholeness of the art work. This divergence we will take up in the concluding section.

What then is dialectic? Dialectic is a major and wide-ranging concept, meaning a number of things to different thinkers. However, one theme seems fairly constant: namely, that dialectic has something to do with conflict. This we find, to name just some instances, in the conflict of opinions in Socratic dialectic, in the disputations of the medieval schools concerning controversial questions, in Kant's antinomies of Verstand, in Marx's class war. This theme of “conflict,” “antithesis,” “opposition” we also discover in deconstruction's emphasis on the equivocal. The theme is central also to Hegel, with the additional qualification that for Hegel dialectic has to do with the principle of articulation itself. In Hegel, the process of articulation involves reference both to the character of the real and man's own linguistic acts. Dialectic is something both in the order of thinking, or “logic,” and in the order of Being, or “ontological.”15 What flows from this? Immediately dialectic situates us in a world of process or Becoming. And, at least on this preliminary count, the Hegelian world is not unrelated to the universe of Nietzsche. We cannot fix the real into the frozen form, or congeal it into lifeless substance. We are greeted by a world in development in which dynamism, to recall previous terms, is a dominating dimension. The difference, however, with Nietzschean becoming is that this dynamism for Hegel cannot be characterized in terms of formless flux. It rather reveals itself essentially as an active process of forming, formation, rather than formless flux or frozen form. In Nietzsche becoming tends to be devoid of inherent structure, as when he speaks of the world as a monster of energy16; structure tends to be a comforting, necessary grid that we humans throw over chaos. With Hegel becoming is inherently a process of structuring, a self-structuring, again in a fully active sense. Dialectic is the principle of the articulation of this structuring. Hence dialectic from the outset implicates the notion of dynamic structuring, as if the energy of Dionysus were ultimately indistinguishable from the process of Apollonian formation, the first driving the process, the second giving this process shape, but the process itself being neither one nor the other but always both.

In addition, dialectic is related to the principle of articulation inherent in language itself. This is perhaps where Hegel's affinity with the deconstructionist most comes out. For Hegel, language at its richest is dialectical, but to hold this view entails some subordination of the normal logic of univocal propositions. In formal logic, a proposition ought to articulate a state of affairs in a manner which clearly separates it from its opposite state. A and not-A are mutually exclusive. As a linguistic unit, a proposition ought to have one definite meaning. And should we affirm this one meaning, we exclude the possible affirmation of the opposite. Hegel's dissatisfaction with this exclusionary logic follows from his view of the nature of being as Becoming. If the real is in process, its articulation cannot be fixed to one frozen form. What we find instead is a process in which a thing in time becomes other to its former shape, while yet in this process of differentiation remaining itself. Butler, canonizing the metaphysics of common sense, held: Everything is itself and not another. For Hegel, everything is itself and also other. Put somewhat differently: everything has some determinate identity—here Hegel would agree with Butler. But this identity is complex and defined by an inherent process of differentiation. This process of differentiation makes it to differ from itself as a simple identity, to become other than such (a similarity with Derrida's différance strikes one on this point). Reality in becoming is both itself and not fully itself, and the process of articulation moves towards the fullest determination of what the thing can become but is not yet. To do adequate justice in articulate language to these developments and transformation inherent in becoming, language must itself become more fluid.17 The notion of univocal propositions fixes language into an excessively rigid norm, fostering the exclusionary mentality of the “either/or” rather than the inclusionary perspective of “both/and.” To comprehend, to embrace the structuring process of becoming, the articulation of language must approach this latter possibility or itself become dialectical.

We can develop the point further if we remind ourselves that dialectic implies that an excessive reliance on univocity, if left to its own devices, tends to break down. We can put the point in terms of Hegel's understanding of Verstand. Verstand, the analytical understanding, tends to abstract from the flux of immediate sense experience, with the aim of stabilizing and differentiating this flux. Its aim is to differentiate, discriminate this flow, but it does so by asserting definite and fast distinctions. It abstracts but also separates, and so introduces some degree of structure, form, into the initial promiscuous tangle of experience. We might think that this analytical separation exhausts the work of reason, but this is not so for Hegel. The clarity and discrimination born of abstraction and analysis is a gain but it is also incomplete. In fact, what the analytical understanding fixes into hard and rigid separation, dialectic, or the continuing flow of articulation, tends to break down again. One of the chief advances of Kant's philosophy, Hegel thought, was to show just this: Verstand marches itself towards a series of fundamental antinomies or contradictions that it cannot resolve on its own resources. Put in the terms of the present discussion, fixed univocity deconstructs its own rigidity, and ends in a situation of antithesis and ambiguity which Verstand mistakenly believed it had completely overcome. The equivocal returns. For through univocity the analytical understanding tries to conquer a given equivocation; but its conquering categories are themselves conquered by equivocation on the other side of the established univocity. Dialectic, for Hegel, simply follows the flow of this development by which an initial unity, seemingly simple and hard set, breaks itself up into polarities, contradictions, antitheses, oppositions.18

The comparison with deconstruction is striking. Thinking makes war upon itself.19 It generates itself and drives itself forward by contradicting itself, creating itself anew out of the destruction of its own previous, partial forms. Indeed, Hegel insistently uses the language of “negativity” to bring forth this dismantling side of dialectic. In fact, it is for such reasons that Hegel incorporates the sceptical principle as an essential ingredient in all genuine philosophical thought. The sceptical principle, particularly as found in ancient, “noble” scepticism, we might say, confronts the experience of “nothingness.”20 Everything we try to affirm with absolute fixity falls in time. Its fixity dissolves and comes to nothing. Thus Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit can be seen as an extraordinarily complex, all but epic working-out of this sceptical negativity of the dialectic. Here Hegel warns us that we must stare the negative in the face.21 And in the Phenomenology we discover consciousness trying to assert itself with complete certainty in a plurality of different forms, each of which it tries to fix as absolute. None proves absolute, each form breaks up out of its own inherent tension or strain. Each configuration (Gestalt) of consciousness disfigures itself, each form deforms itself, every construction deconstructs itself under the relentless power of the “negative.”

Opposition, antithesis, then, is unavoidable in every effort to posit or fix a unity. War is the father of all things, Heraclitus says. The negativity of dialectic, for Hegel, is generative of the process which constructs the forms of reality, or of consciousness, or of language, but it is also what deconstructs such forms in their partiality or limitation. For such reasons, perhaps, Hegel in his Logic22 explicitly praises the German language for containing words capable of directly contrary meanings. This is no index of the German language as a seat of confusion. It is rather a measure of its positive, embracing power. It articulates itself dialectically. As Hegel implies in his famous discussion of the Speculative Satz in the Phenomenology,23 the normal propositional form is not completely adequate to articulate philosophical truth in the fullest measure. Richer language, language which contains a whole world within itself, a world inclusive of opposites, is required. The dialectical language of Hegel's own philosophical discourse is his effort to live up to this requirement.

Granting these comparisons with deconstruction, we now come to the further point with dialectic. Put most briefly, the power of negativity does not completely exhaust the process of articulation, but rather is itself completed by its balancing positive. At the heart of the “negative” we must affirm a positive. For Hegel reason in its negative dialectic flows into reason as speculative, or reason in its richest positive power.24 The process of dissolving, of negating, is itself only possible on the condition of something that must be described in positive terms. The confrontation with the negative releases a positive power itself not capable of being characterized in negative terms alone. For Hegel, after deconstruction, dialectic opens up to a moment of reconstitution. This is perhaps most explicit in Hegel's notion of Aufhebung: something or some position is negated or cancelled; we transcend that something or position in this act of cancelling; but in that act of surpassing, what is cancelled is also preserved, contained as a necessary condition of the transcending move. Aufhebung entails the three dimensions of negation, transcendence and preservation. The limitation from which dialectic frees us, also binds us to it, as a necessary condition without which the fuller release would be impossible, and so as something which must newly affirm from the standpoint of the liberation. In more popular terms, terms which Hegel did not frequently employ, the breakdown of the thesis and its simplicity by its antithesis point further again to the synthesis of these two previous antagonists.

This emphasis upon a dialectical Aufhebung or more embracing synthesis distinguishes Hegel's dialectic from deconstruction. Both concede the breakdown of the simple unities of univocity; for univocity yields a simple identity without inherent differentiation or complexity. Both trace the process of antithesis emerging from such simple unities. But the deconstructionist interprets such antithesis as sheer difference or equivocation—opposition without unifying meaning. Difference dissolves identity. Hegel, by contrast, interprets the difference dialectically, not equivocally—this involves the claim that the many opposites are in fact capable of being held together, not indeed in any univocal unity, for that is impossible, but in a complex unity immanently differentiated, a dialectical unity. Equivocal difference dissolves univocal unity, but for this “dialectical identity” there is a reintegration of these differences beyond sheer equivocation. We are capable of thinking of the “togetherness” of these differences, of embracing a unity of opposites. Equivocal differences may dissolve univocal identity, but a dialectical unity seeks to embrace equivocation and go positively beyond its negating, dissolving power. Hence Hegel gives as a definition of the Absolute: the identity of identity and difference. That is, there is a complex unity, a dialectical identity which embraces both univocal unity and equivocal differences. This unity is absolute because it is absolving, freeing, not just dissolving. It absolves us, as it were, from the sense of difference as sheer hostile opposition, the animosity of the mutually negating dualisms said to beset the western tradition.

To summarize, then: the process of articulation for Hegel does not just form and deform, construct and deconstruct. It reforms and reconstructs. It reintegrates into its fuller developments the partial articulations it has previously surpassed. Indeed, it is this reintegration which gives discourse its inherent density, its immanent intricacy, its rich and compacted fullness. Like the deconstructionist, the dialectician may point to this “overdetermined” wealth of discourse, but to interpret this wealth in terms of the equivocal is to fall radically short. It must be interpreted in a manner transcending the univocal, but also on the other side of equivocalness. A dialectical interpretation is one such interpretation which tries to do justice to the rich ambiguity of language without allowing this ambiguity to fall away into the sheerly equivocal. Reverting to Nietzschean images, dynamism and form, Dionysus and Apollo, need not be mutually exclusive opposites, but rather form emerges dialectically from dynamism, harnessing its power but not necessarily stifling it, shaping its discordant strains into a new whole.25 Form need not be superimposed by the violence of an extraneous force. It comes to articulation immanently out of the originally undeveloped dynamism; genuine form is the articulation of the original dynamism. Without this the original energy would be dissipated without outcome. Through the process of dialectical formation the original dynamism is shaped and set forth into its different stages and gathered together into a rich whole.


I now come to the upshot of the prior philosophical discussion in its bearing on the art work, and particularly the literary work of art. My suggestion is that the dialectical way represents an approach to the art work which preserves what I have called the principle of wholeness, while not necessitating the discard of the deep complexities and polarities disclosed by deconstruction. As should be clear, dialectic points further than its own negativity to a reconstitution within a whole of the separated and sometimes opposed parts. While deconstruction does awaken us often to the latter, thus disturbing our easy sense of the familiar simple unity of the art work, dialectic represents a fuller effort to do justice to a more complex sense of unity. Undoubtedly the deconstructionist repudiates such a unity, and so also repudiates what they claim is the Hegelian effort to bring the work to closure. The matter is not so simple, however. First we have to ask: does a great art work communicate to the reader something of the experience of complex wholeness? In answer it must be said that frequently what draws us to the work is the anticipation that this will be so. Experience of the art work does confirm this expectation, in opening consciousness to the experience of a dense and compacted fullness. Second, we need to ask: granted its occurrence, how are we to make intelligible the experience of this rich wholeness? The dialectical approach is one such way. The deconstructionist way, while feeding on the compacted fullness of the work, risks finishing with a plurality of equivocations without connections. The suspicion arises that the art work in its integrity has disintegrated or even vanished in the process. Instead of the full, compacted presence we are left with the trace of an absence.26 One grows uneasy precisely because this outcome, while it wrenches us out of a too-dulled familiarity, is also at odds with our experience of encountering the art work.

Put differently, the deconstructionist begins with, say, a poem, having, it seems, a certain unity, presenting itself as something marked by a significant synthesis of experience. Deconstruction analyses this unity or synthesis, and discovers it riddled with contraries, oppositions, and so on. Dialectic does exactly the same. But where deconstruction seems to give us analysis without synthesis, dialectic insists that we return again to the original synthesis, now with the enrichment of having passed through the analysis. As a principle of criticism, deconstruction has difficulty in making intelligible the possibility of this original synthesis. As a critical practice, it rouses the suspicion that this original synthesis is simply dissolved. Dialectic, by contrast, allows the strain toward dissolution in every synthesis, but the given experience of the synthesis indicates that contraries are already contained within this original unity. The art work itself is already a dialectical whole, already a unity of opposites within itself,27 regardless of how we subsequently analyze and take apart its constituent elements. Our subsequent interpretation of it must do justice to both the inherence of opposites within it and its wholeness. Having analyzed the original unity into its inherent oppositions, the deconstructionist then goes on in practice to deny the possibility of bringing together these oppositions. But such an analysis merely denies its own starting point. Opposition within the art work is not an absolute exclusion; the art work is already a significant relation of polarities in tension, a coupling of opposites which are now no longer merely dualized. The art work is original aesthetic testimony to the significant togetherness of these poles in tension. Deconstruction sounds extraordinarily like Verstand, or the analytical understanding, gone to equivocation: the polarities are frozen into hard and fixed opposites, and, of course, as such they cannot be brought together. But the dynamic fact of the art work already denies this fixation into irreconcilable opposition. The art work as an original unity is already such a movement towards reconciliation, however partial. The dialectical approach, granting the original synthesis and the inherent differentiation of the art work, simply traces the process of this movement.

What is at issue here is the appropriate balance between analysis and synthesis. Without proper synthesis, analysis is unbalanced toward sheerly decomposing thought. The original whole dissolves into a deconstruction of the parts of the parts. But to analyze something so intricate and dense, we must first recognize or identify that something as a whole. Such an act of recognition or identification is not itself an instance of analysis. Something about the art work remains recalcitrant to deconstruction as critical analysis. It is an old platitude that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Analysis or deconstruction alone cannot tell us what this “more” is, though they can illumine the complexity of the parts for us. Inevitably the feeling surfaces that something essential has been missed, that deconstruction itself represses our experience of this “more,” our experience of concrete present wholeness. Obviously we need not entirely jettison deconstructive analysis. What we do require, however, is its balance with a synthetic thinking, not merely deconstructive. Dialectical thinking, I have claimed, represents an attempt to provide such a balance.

One of the fears of the deconstructionist, however, is that the Hegelian insistence on synthesis closes off our experience of the art work. Fear of closure is pervasive in their writings. My account of dialectic need not turn it into such a prison. Dialectic itself is perhaps capable of a double interpretation, one tending to closure, the other more openended. For dialectical thinking can be seen as either grasping or encapsulating the structure of a process of becoming, or creation. Or it might be seen as participating itself in the active structuring of such a process. The former side tends to lend itself to closure, the latter need not. And it is the latter, I believe, which reveals more about the links between dialectic and dynamism, as spoken of above. On this interpretation, dialectic moves with the dynamic process of structuring itself, in both its deconstructing and constructing moments. We might venture that Hegel, like dialectic itself, contains a “double” within his thought, reveals himself as open to a double reading. Indeed, the present essay might be seen as contributing to a positive “deconstruction” of a too closed and fixed view of Hegel. Hegel, on this double reading, turns out to reveal an inherent complexity more challenging than the picture of stock logician who tries to devour everything in the empty unity of abstract concepts. The “open” Hegel demands that even Hegel's absolute be not seen as this empty conceptual unity of totalitarian thought. As above implied, the Absolute might be seen as absolving, as releasing rather than dissolving or enclosing.

When Hegel places art in Absolute Spirit, it is to this ultimately releasing wholeness that I think he points. Wholeness need not be closure but may be “open.”28 An “open” wholeness may seem like a contradiction in terms, a violent yoking together of absolutely heterogeneous categories: an impossibility in formal logic. But aesthetic experience brings home to us the possibility of such a seemingly absurd coincidence of opposites. The inexhaustibility of the art work reveals just one expression of such “open” wholeness. Hegel's dialectical thinking simply represents an effort to acknowledge this and render it intelligible. The deconstructionist sometimes strikes one as uneasily juxtaposing the sensitivity of the aesthete with the virtuosity of a kind of formal, logical analyst. We are reminded of Schlegel's characterization of Romantic Irony as mingling clear consciousness with a sense of infinitely rich chaos.29 The deconstructionist plays with this infinite chaos in Nietzschean fashion with a clarity of consciousness almost Cartesian. Not surprisingly we sometimes find the deconstructionist speaking about oscillating between nihilism and logocentrism.30 Hegel, however, is neither a Platonist or Cartesian (logocentrism) nor yet a Nietzschean (nihilism), neither freezing the form nor dissolving all form. Form is in motion, fluid and dynamic: not just static form, nor sheer process, but the formation process itself. There is, I believe, a world of a difference between an infinitely rich chaos and an infinite richness. This reference to romantic irony is not by the way, since Hegel derides the ultimate emptiness of its negativity, while relentlessly excoriating Schlegel.31 To return to the “open” wholeness of the art work, its inexhaustibility, its infinite richness rather than infinitely rich chaos, we must take a step beyond negativity, and in Hegel's phrase, reminiscent of the critic's effort to “deconstruct deconstruction,”32 we must “negate the negation.”


  1. This is the impression created by some of the contributors to the symposium “Professing Literature” in The Times Literary Supplement, December 10, 1982: 1355-63. See also the remark of Geoffrey Hartman in Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), ix: “The separation of philosophy from literary study has not worked to the benefit of either.”

  2. See Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Volume I: The Will to Power as Art, trans. David F. Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).

  3. See Harold Bloom's article “The Breaking of Form” in Deconstruction and Criticism, ch. I.

  4. Here there is a curious agreement with Whitehead when he says that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. Whitehead meant this as a compliment to Plato. When the Nietzscheans, Heideggerians, and deconstructionists see metaphysics as the historical working out of Platonism, they imply some rebuke. Lest some traditional literary critics be surprised at the introduction of metaphysics, see, for instance, J. Hillis Miller's “The Critic as Host” in Deconstruction and Criticism, where metaphysics and “obvious meaning” come under fire.

  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), III, 25.

  6. On Platonism and nihilism, see Heidegger's Nietzsche, vol. I. esp. 151-61.

  7. On purposeless becoming, see, for example, The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 377-78; on form as fiction, ibid., 282. This emphasis on purposeless becoming, the innocence of becoming leads, of course, to a strong insistence on the importance of play. See my “The Child in Nietzsche's Menagerie,” Seminar V (1981): 40-44.

  8. For just one representative statement, see The Will to Power, 277: “Logic is bound to the condition: assume there are identical cases.”

  9. Thus Heidegger in Einführung in die Metaphysik (Tubingen: M. Niemeyer, 1953), 28, speaks of his own task as attempting to bring “Nietzsche's accomplishment to a full unfolding.” On Nietzsche's influence on Heidegger, see Krell's remarks in his analysis of the Nietzsche volume, 245ff.

  10. This notion of the “unthought” is to be found, for instance, in Heidegger's discussion of Hegel in Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1974). In this volume we also have Heidegger's discussion of the principle of identity.

  11. On this and its reverberations throughout the nineteenth century, see Karl Lowith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought, trans. D. E. Green (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1967).

  12. Jacques Derrida, L'écriture et la différence (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1967), 426-28. Also Paul de Man's remarks on figuration in Deconstruction and Criticism, 61.

  13. For a very clear statement of the issues of deconstruction in terms of the intertwining of the univocal and the equivocal, see Miller's contribution to Deconstruction and Criticism.

  14. See de Man's reading of Shelley's The Triumph of Life in terms of a “chain of metaphorical transformations,” Deconstruction and Criticism, 58. If one were to judge by this volume, The Triumph of Life would appear to be the text, it gets so much attention. Miller speaks about the “prisonhouse of language” from which we can effect “no escape” by means of a “simple referential grammar” (229ff).

  15. The question whether dialectic can be understood ontologically is controversial among Hegel's commentators. Hegel himself does speak of dialectic as a principle exemplified in the actual itself. See, for instance, Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften in Werke (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1969-1971), Bd. 10, n48.

  16. See Will to Power, 550. In this passage Nietzsche's description of the world as eternally moving between contradiction and concord has an extraordinarily Hegelian ring to it. The difference comes out elsewhere (e.g., 379) when Nietzsche says: “the world is not an organism at all, but chaos.”

  17. Unlike Hegel, Nietzsche implies that language cannot do justice to Becoming (Will to Power, 380). Hegel implies that justice can be done if language itself becomes dialectical.

  18. For some discussion of Verstand in relation to experience and Vernunft, see my “Hegel, Philosophy and Worship,” Cithara 19 (1979): 11-17.

  19. On the “internal opposition of thought to itself,” see Enzyklopädie, n26; on dialectic generally see John Findlay, Hegel: A Reexamination (New York: Humanities Press, 1958), ch. III.

  20. Enzyklopadie, n24, zus.

  21. G. W. F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, ed. J. Hoffmeister (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1952), 29-30; Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 19.

  22. Hegel's Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller (New York: Humanities Press, 1969), 32.

  23. See Phänonenologie, 48ff; Phenomenology, 35ff.

  24. Enzyklopädie, n82.

  25. In a very “Nietzschean” passage in the Phenomenology (27-28), Hegel speaks of truth as a peculiar Bacchanalian revel which combines drunken intoxication with complete calm, that is, as a kind of unity of Dionysus and Apollo.

  26. “Trace of an absence” is the kind of language Derrida employs. See Bloom's remark about modern poetry and what he calls “an achieved dearth of meaning,” Deconstruction and Criticism, 12. I realize, of course, that the category of “presence” raises many hares for Heideggerians and post-Heideggerians. “Metaphysics of presence” tends to be a somewhat pejorative, tainted term. One is tempted to reply: “presence” is extraordinarily complex, indeed in some cases it may be inexhaustible. “Absence” falls prey to all the criticisms that Stillingfleet and Berkeley brought against Locke's material substrate as an “I know not what”; or to Hegel's criticisms of Kant's unknowable Ding an sich.

  27. I have discussed some of these dialectical features elsewhere: “Hegel, Art and Imitation,” Clio 7 (1978): 303-13; also in “Hegel, Art and History,” paper read to the Hegel Society of America, Clemson University, October, 1982; to appear in the Proceedings.

  28. On this possibility of an “open” wholeness, see “Hegel, Art and History,” cited above, n. 27.

  29. See Eric Heller, The Artist's Journey into the Interior (New York: Random House, (1959), 82. Harold Bloom notes a connection between Paul de Man and romantic irony, indeed cites Schlegel as de Man's “truest precursor”; Deconstruction and Criticism, 16.

  30. We have already noted the Nietzschean heritage, but one might also note Derrida's own concern with Husserl's project, and then in turn the connection between Husserl and Descartes. Miller (see n. 13, above) speaks about oscillating between logocentrism and nihilism. The dizziness of Miller's oscillation is enlivened by a cheerful nihilism à la Nietzsche. The nihilism of some deconstructionists, however, may veer from thoughtful cheerfulness to a kind of thoughtless complacency. See, for instance, the remark of the editors of The Question of Textuality: Strategies of Reading in Contemporary American Criticism, William V. Spanos, Paul A. Bove, and Daniel O'Hara (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 8: “We can connect nothing with nothing, one might say.” They speak of having to pass through Nietzsche, but such remarks make one wonder whether instead they are passing out into vacancy.

  31. See G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, I, in Werke, Bd. 13, 92ff.

  32. Denis Donoghue, “Deconstructing Deconstruction,” New York Review of Books, vol. 27, n. 10 (June 12, 1980): 37-41.

Philip J. Kain (essay date summer 1988)

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SOURCE: Kain, Philip J. “Hegel's Political Theory and Philosophy of History.” CLIO 17, no. 4 (summer 1988): 345-68.

[In the following essay, Kain assesses Hegel's indebtedness to the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant for his own theories of politics and history. The critic explains Hegel's concept of spirit, and elaborates on why this theory is fundamental to the philosopher's views on the ideal state in the modern world.]


Hegel's historical and political thought can best be understood if we understand its relationship to Rousseau's political theory and Kant's philosophy of history.

Hegel's conception of the modern state closely resembles Rousseau's ideal community which was based upon rational freedom realized through a general will and reinforced by custom and tradition which shaped the character and interests of the citizens. However, Rousseau's community was utopian—it could not be realized in the modern world. It was incompatible with commerce and trade which promote particular interest and thus corrupt custom and erode the general will. These matters will be discussed in Section III.

To explain the possibility of the ideal state in the modern world, Hegel turns to Kant's philosophy of history where commerce, trade, and conflicting particular interests themselves lead to what morality—the categorical imperative or the general will—would demand. Kant's ideal state, however, completely lacks custom, tradition, and community—what Hegel calls “Sittlichkeit.” These matters will be discussed in Section II.

Hegel's goal, then, is to combine three things: (1) rational freedom of the sort realized through a general will or categorical imperative, (2) a theory of historical development in which conflicting particular interests lead to a moral society, and (3) custom, tradition, or Sittlichkeit. To do this Hegel will have to reject certain aspects of the thought of Rousseau and Kant and he will have to explain how custom, tradition, and community instead of being corrupted by particular interests can come to be compatible with them. The key to this will be Hegel's concept of spirit. These matters will be discussed in Section IV. Let us begin with Kant.


In the “Idea for a Universal History,” Kant claims that individuals motivated by inclinations, desires, and particular interests, nevertheless further, without realizing it, a common but unknown purpose. The key to this historical purposiveness is what Kant calls “unsocial sociability.” Humans have an unsocial propensity toward self-interest, but they also have a social propensity to associate with others in society. These two factors produce competition, conflict, and even war. However, competition and selfishness also drive us to accomplish things, and they drive us toward the fullest development of our powers and capacities. This development, for Kant, will eventually lead to a society of peace and morality.1

So also, for Kant, there is an unsocial sociability between nations. The unsocial assertion of national self-interest drives nations toward aggression and war. But there is also an important form of sociability between nations—their concern with commerce and trade. As conflicts and wars become more destructive and expensive, they come into conflict with trade. As nations become more commercially interdependent, war poses an ever greater threat to the smooth functioning of the international market. Other nations will intervene to prevent war, and thus, for Kant, we move toward peace, justice, and a league of nations.2

For Kant, there are two forces at work in history. The first is the conflict of particular interests. The second is morality. And both, for Kant, lead to the very same end—peace, justice and a league of nations. Conflicts and wars, Kant says, are leading toward what moral reflection would have demanded from the start (UH, 18-19. PP, 112-13).

For Kant, the categorical imperative requires us to act only on maxims which we could will to be universal laws.3 Morality is based upon reason, not interest. We must rationally analyze our maxims—ask if they can be universalized without contradiction—in order to separate our interests or inclinations about a particular act from our abstract rational assessment of what is moral in general. Only if we follow reason are we free, self-determined, and moral. If we act upon our interests, we are determined heteronomously by natural forces and we are not free.4

The categorical imperative would demand just laws, an end to wars, and a league of nations (PP, 100). We could not will to universalize war, unjust laws, and international lawlessness. Moreover, the other force at work in history drives us to the very same point that morality does. Both morality and the conflict of particular interests converge toward the same end—one consciously, the other unconsciously (UH, 18-19. PP, 111-13).

The notion that conflicting self-interests lead toward what morality demands, Kant gets, I think, from Adam Smith. In a market economy, for Smith, self-seeking not only produces a common good, but it does so more effectively than if individuals had consciously and cooperatively sought this good. It produces a national capital—a common good—through an “invisible hand,” that is, behind our backs and despite our intentions.5

For Kant too we find such an invisible hand operating within society:

many say a republic would have to be a nation of angels, because men with their selfish inclinations are not capable of a constitution of such sublime form. But precisely with these inclinations nature comes to the aid of the general will established on reason. … Thus it is only a question of a good organization of the state … whereby the powers of each selfish inclination are so arranged in opposition that one moderates or destroys the ruinous effect of the other. The consequence for reason is the same as if none of them existed, and man is forced to be a good citizen even if not a morally good person.

(PP, 112)

While Hegel, unlike Kant, does not think that world history is leading to peace, a league of nations, or international law,6 nevertheless, Hegel, very much like Kant, relies on an invisible hand argument both in his philosophy of history and in his theory of civil society. For Hegel, particular interest or passion is the active force in history which gives rise to the universal. Human passions and the universal Idea are the warp and the woof of world history.7 Hegel says,

The particular interests of passion cannot … be separated from the realization of the universal. … Particular interests contend with one another … But it is from this very conflict and destruction of particular things that the universal emerges, and it remains unscathed itself. For it is not the universal Idea which enters into opposition, conflict, and danger; it keeps itself in the background, untouched and unharmed, and sends forth the particular interests of passion to fight, and wear themselves out in its stead. It is what we may call the cunning of reason that it sets the passions to work in its service, so that the agents by which it gives itself existence must pay the penalty and suffer the loss.

(IPH, 89)

World history, for Hegel, occurs as the universal Idea is realized through the conflict of particular interests—a conflict which produces effects quite different from what the individuals consciously intended to accomplish (IPH, 82, 75).

So also, in his discussion of civil society in the Philosophy of Right, Hegel, much as for Kant, follows Adam Smith. Civil society is a system of economic interdependence where self-seeking unconsciously produces the satisfaction of the needs of all. Competitive self-seeking produces a common capital from which each struggles to gain their share. Conflicting particular interests lead to the universal. Moreover, for Hegel, a state is well constituted when the private interests of the citizens coincide with the general end of the state (PR, 127, 129-30. IPH, 73).

So far, the views of Hegel and Kant are quite similar. Now we must look to the differences. In the first place, for Hegel, we cannot say that there are two different forces at work in history—the conflict of particular interests and morality—as for Kant. “The particular interests of passion cannot … be separated from the realization of the universal” (IPH, 89; my italics). We can begin to understand Hegel's views on this matter if we look to the section of the Phenomenology entitled “Virtue and the Way of the World.” Most commentators on the Phenomenology think that this section refers to Don Quixote. None of them, that I am aware of, see what it really refers to, which is so very clearly Kant's philosophy of history.

In this section, Hegel's description of “virtue” clearly indicates that he has Kant's ethics in mind. Virtue is the consciousness that law is essential and that individuality—which is to say, particular interest—must be sacrificed to the universal. Virtue wills to accomplish the good which is not yet actual; the universal is an “ought” which must be realized. It can be realized only through virtue's nullifying of individuality.8 For the “way of the world,” on the other hand, individuality takes itself to be essential and it pursues self-interest. It seeks its own pleasure and enjoyment, and in doing so it subordinates the universal to itself. For Kant, both morality and the conflict of particular interests converge toward the same universal end. So also, for Hegel, the way of the world, through the conflict of particular interests, achieves the universal—the same universal that virtue seeks (PS, 228-29, 235). For Kant, it was morality's task to guide the historical conflict of particular interests and to hasten it toward its end. For Hegel, virtue too attempts to assist the way of the world to realize the universal. At this point, however, Hegel's disagreement with Kant begins. Hegel argues that, in fact, virtue's assistance is unnecessary; the way of the world is quite capable of realizing the universal on its own. Virtue's assistance is a sham (PS, 230-32). Virtue wants to bring the good into existence by the sacrifice of particular interest. But the conflict of particular interests is what actually realizes the universal. Virtue wants to realize the universal as something that ought to be rather than as something which is. The way of the world is our first dim view in the Phenomenology of Sittlichkeit—morality which appears not merely as an ought, but which is. Hegel says:

Virtue in the ancient world has its own definite sure meaning, for it had in the spiritual substance of the nation a foundation full of meaning, and for its purpose an actual good already in existence. Consequently, too, it was not directed against the actual world as against something generally perverted, and against a “way of the world.” But the virtue we are considering has its being outside of the spiritual substance, it is an unreal virtue, a virtue in imagination and name only, which lacks that substantial content.

(PS, 234; the last italics are mine)

Thus, for Hegel, we must drop the idea that virtue exists only as a principle, an ought, which as yet has no actual existence and which is brought into existence through the sacrifice of individuality, particular interest, or passion. Hegel's objection to Kantian morality, or “virtue,” is that it is abstract, outside the world, an ought, and it believes that only it can realize morality.9 It has severed itself from the concrete actual world of interest and passion, and it faces it as an other. From this superior position it wants to direct the world. Instead, morality must be rooted in the world. Or to put this another way, the point Hegel is making here is that Kant's philosophy of history and his ethics are written from the perspective of individual consciousness—the perspective that there are only individual consciousnesses. Morality, for Kant, is a matter of individual will abstracted from the concrete actual world. Certainly, for Kant, inclinations and interests, which are part of the actual world of natural causality, are to be carefully separated and excluded from the realm of the individual moral will if the individual is to be self-determined and thus free. This separation is what Hegel objects to. Kant has no notion of spirit or Sittlichkeit, which are beginning to emerge here in the Phenomenology.Sittlichkeit is morality embedded in a concrete spiritual world. For Hegel, virtue and the way of the world, particular interest and the universal, morality and the concrete world, are not separate opposed realities externally related to each other. They are internally related as parts of a single spiritual reality which already exists, not something which merely ought to be realized. For Hegel, individual consciousness is the internalization of the social world and the social world is the outcome of the actions of individual consciousnesses. Each develops in interaction with the other, and each transforms the other. They are two parts of one spiritual unity.

Hegel agrees with the Kantian and Smithian notion that a conflict of particular interests leads to the universal. What Hegel does not accept is that this can be understood merely at the level of individual consciousness. It must be understood at the level of spirit. Spirit explains how individual interest—the concrete way of the world—is connected to virtue. This will become clearer in Section IV, but here we can at least say that conflict between particular interests gives rise to a set of institutions, a world, which comes to have a life of its own, and which reacts back upon and molds those individual consciousnesses and thus leads them to virtue. Particular interests and virtue are not two eternally separate realms external to one another. They are internally related as two interacting parts enclosed within a single spiritual unity, and each produces the other. Virtue is simply mistaken in thinking itself independent and outside of this spiritual reality, superior to it, and thus able to guide particular interests from above. In fact, for Hegel, we cannot guide history at all as Kant thinks we can. History is not a matter of individual will, but of spirit. Individuals are unconscious tools of world spirit. Moreover, there is no ought that the individual will can independently set out to realize. Morality already exists as this spiritual unity which encloses us and is our very being. Hegel's task is to reconcile us to what is by allowing us to correctly understand what is. His aim is to transform our understanding of reality so that we accept it, not to transform reality in accordance with an ought (PR, 11-12. IPH, 170-71).

To understand this critique of Kant more clearly, we must notice that Hegel distinguishes between two forms of morality—Moralität and Sittlichkeit. Moralität begins with Socrates and reaches its high point in Kant. Moralität is individual, rational, and reflective morality based upon individual autonomy and personal conviction. One must rationally decide what is moral and do it because it is moral—because our rationality tells us that it is the right thing to do. This rational and reflective component is absent in Sittlichkeit. Sittlichkeit is best represented in the Greek polis before the rise of Socratic Moralität. Sittlichkeit is ethical behavior grounded in custom and tradition and developed through habit and imitation in accordance with the objective laws of the community. Personal reflection and analysis have little to do with Sittlichkeit (IPH, 97). Sittlichkeit is ethical life built into one's character, attitudes, and feelings.

Furthermore, Moralität involves an “ought”—morality ought to be realized. This “ought” is also absent from Sittlichkeit. For it, morality is not something we ought to realize, something we ought to be. Morality exists—it is. Morality is already embedded in our customs, traditions, character, attitudes, and feelings. Here there is no opposition between particular interest and the universal. There is no opposition between subject and object. The objective ethical order exists in, is actualized in, is the essence of, the subject (PR, 109. PS, 212-16).

What Hegel wants for the modern world in neither traditional Sittlichkeit nor modern Moralität. He wants a synthesis of Sittlichkeit and Moralität which, though at times confusing, he also calls Sittlichkeit. This higher Sittlichkeit combines the rational and reflective side of Moralität with the transcendence of the ought characteristic of Sittlichkeit. Rational reflective morality is concretely embedded in the customs, traditions, character, and feelings of individuals. We have a reflective consciousness of the ethical substance (PS, 216).

Sittlichkeit without Moralität is adequate for Hegel. So also, Hegel rejects Kantian Moralität without Sittlichkeit. This was implied in “Virtue and the Way of the World,” but it becomes clearer in following sections of the Phenomenology where Hegel goes on to argue that Kantian Moralität shorn of Sittlichkeit, in fact, is impossible. He argues that one cannot discover one's moral obligation in Kantian fashion simply by analyzing abstract principles to see if they are universal and noncontradictory. For example, private property as well as its opposite—common ownership—are equally universalizable and noncontradictory. Without Sittlichkeit—without an immediately given, objective, ethical substance embedded in custom and tradition which actually is rather that merely ought to be—it is impossible to discover through analysis one's moral obligation. Moralität gets its content from Sittlichkeit (PS, 257-61. PR, 36, 90. IPH, 80).

Moreover, Moralität without Sittlichkeit would leave us with an inadequate form of freedom. For Kant, individual subjectivity alone is free. Individuals are free when practical reason determines their action. The individual, however, is not necessarily free to realize this moral action. The objective world may well present obstacles to the carrying out of the action, without, for Kant, affecting the individual's moral freedom in the least (F, 10, 16. CPrR, 71). For Kant, such empirical factors, whether they be obstacles or aids, must be completely ignored. They are irrelevant to freedom. Nor do feelings or inclinations play a role here. They need not support the action; nor is our freedom affected if they are opposed to the moral action.10 For Hegel, on the other hand, freedom is realized only when the objective external world and our feelings fit, agree with, and support the subjective rational freedom of the individual. Laws and institutions, feelings and customs, as well as the rationality of the individual must form a single organic spiritual unity. Thus, for Hegel, freedom requires three things: (1) that the individual be self-determined by universal and rational principles, (2) that rationality have been objectified in the laws and institutions of the state such that in obeying civil laws we obey the laws of our own reason, and (3) that interests, feelings, and customs have been molded so as to agree with and support these rational laws such that particular interests are satisfied and yet lead to the universal.11

For Kant, the possibility of freedom required that the transcendental self not be located in the natural, causally determined, phenomenal world. Another—a noumenal realm—was required. A sphere apart from the natural sphere was necessary as the source of self-determined, free action (F, 69-73. CPrR, 28, 50). In rejecting the existence of an unknown thing-in-itself,12 Hegel rejects the existence of this separate noumenal realm. Rather than locate a transcendental self in a realm apart (as virtue was opposed to the way of the world), he denies that there are such different realms. Instead, there is a single spiritual realm split into two parts—an individual subjective realm and an objective substantial realm. These two sides react against each other and each produces the other. Ultimately the natural objective element is absorbed into the conscious subjective element. In this way the object is no longer alien or other. Individual action and interests give rise to an objective worldly reality which then turns upon the individuals, molds them, and lifts them to the level of universality. The subject does not confront the object as a heteronomous other. The object is the outcome of the subject's own activity, the realization of the subject's essence, and thus the object is compatible with the subject's freedom. The subject is not externally related to the object, but internally related to it as its own essence.

Individuals work on their world through history and transform it to fit themselves (IPH, 64), just as the world transforms individuals so that they conform to it. In confronting their world, individuals confront and discover themselves. For Hegel, they confront their own rationality objectified in the world. This fit between the subjective rationality of the individual and the objective rationality of the world when supported by custom, tradition, and feeling, is the basis of Sittlichkeit. To pursue this further, we must now turn to Rousseau.


Rousseau wants to design an ideal state in which the general will can manifest itself. It can do so, given four conditions which Rousseau lays out in the Social Contract, but not neatly all in one place. The four conditions are the following: (1) All citizens must vote as individuals on all questions or laws. (2) All questions put to these citizens must have an abstract and universal form; they must not name a particular person or fact. (3) The question put must always and only be, “what is the general will on this matter?” You must not address the citizens as individuals and ask them what their particular interests are. (4) All laws must be rigorously and equally enforced, and everyone must realize when they are voting that this will be the case.13

The point here is to address only an individual's abstract, reflective, rational interest, not their personal, particular, selfish interest. Citizens are made to reflect upon what it would be like if everyone always acted in a specific way. We get them to consider the action as a universal and necessary principle—as a categorical imperative in Kant's terminology.

If they do so, even thieves would vote against theft. If we were only to address the particular interest of thieves, we might well get some quite convincing justifications of those particular acts of theft. But if we address the abstract, reflective, rational interest, even of thieves; if we ask whether in general, in all cases, everyone should be allowed to steal by laws which are rigorously and equally enforced for all; then even thieves would vote against theft.

The difference between Rousseau and Kant is that for Rousseau the citizens are expected to vote their interest in the general abstract case—their long-term interest as citizens of a community rather than their immediate interest as particular persons. For Kant, we must avoid interest altogether. Hegel, who, as we have already seen, is critical of Kant's abstract opposition of morality to particular interest, in this respect would be closer to Rousseau.

Furthermore, for Rousseau, the general will must be reinforced by what Hegel would call Sittlichkeit. Citizens are only free if the customs which shape inclination and feeling accord with the general will and reason. Rousseau says, “To these … laws is added … the most important of all; which is not engraved on marble or bronze, but in the hearts of the citizens … I am speaking of mores, customs, and especially of opinion—a part of the laws unknown to our political theorists, but on which the success of all the others depends.”14

Custom and tradition would be reinforced, for Rousseau, by a civil religion which combines simple, inner, personal commitment with a sentiment of sociability and respect for laws. And these healthy customs, traditions, and public opinion would be maintained by a censorial tribunal which, though incapable of creating, changing, or reestablishing customs and traditions, merely declares what they are in an attempt to preserve them and to slow down their corruption (SC, 123-31).

For Rousseau, there is a tendency for the customs and traditions of any community to become corrupted. Rousseau argues in the Discourse on Inequality that in simple, healthy, egalitarian communities, as soon as agriculture and metallurgy develop and surplus production occurs, society is plunged into inequality, conflict of interests, and the corruption of customs.15 Moreover, Rousseau thinks that once healthy customs have been corrupted, all is lost. They can never be revived (SC, 70. DI, 80). Wealth, unequal property, and commerce are the main causes of this corruption. They promote self-interest and erode the citizen's commitment to the public good. They corrupt custom, tradition, and patriotism which then will no longer be able to reinforce the general will. Moreover, they can even erode the general will directly. They will make it all the more difficult for the citizens to transcend their immediate interests and to concern themselves with abstract questions, or to ask “what is the common good?” or “what is the general will?” instead of “what do I want?” (DI, 199-200).

Thus Rousseau is a utopian. He does not think his ideal state is possible in the modern world. It is incompatible with commerce, trade, particular interest, and the corruption they produce. And once customs and traditions have been corrupted, all is lost. They cannot be revived. For a decent society to be possible, healthy customs and traditions must simply be given in a traditional and premodern society.

Hegel certainly wants a state which realizes the universal or the general will, and he wants it reinforced by custom, tradition, and Sittlichkeit. But he also wants such a state to be possible in the modern world and thus compatible with wealth, commerce, and trade. He therefore needs a theory that will explain how custom and tradition, without becoming corrupt, can develop and be maintained in a changing modern society involving commerce and trade.

To understand this theory, we must notice that Hegel differs from Rousseau in that for him customs and traditions are not simply given conditions—the groundwork—upon which the institutions of a state are to be established. Rather, Sittlichkeit, that is, custom and tradition, the feelings and attitudes of the citizens, are continually being produced by social and political institutions. Patriotism, for example, which Hegel sees as a sentiment that “habitually recognizes that the community is one's substantive groundwork and end,” is “simply a product of the institutions subsisting in the state” (PR, 163-64). It thus follows that different states or a state as it changes historically will produce different customs and traditions. This production requires that mind pass through a process of education (Bildung) and this education is a discipline (PR, 165). For example, in discussing the rise of modern Germany out of the Middle Ages, Hegel says:

The two iron rods which were the instrument of this discipline were the Church and serfdom. The Church drove the “Heart” to desperation—made Spirit pass through the severest bondage. … In the same way serfdom, which made a man's body not his own, but the property of another, dragged humanity through all the barbarism of slavery. … It was not so much from slavery as through slavery that humanity was emancipated … it is from this intemperate and ungovernable state of volition that the discipline in question emancipated him.16

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel puts it in more general terms: “Mind attains its actuality only by creating a dualism within itself, by submitting itself to physical needs and the chain of these external necessities, and so imposing on itself this barrier and this finitude, and finally by educating (bildet) itself inwardly even when under this barrier until it overcomes it and attains its objective reality in the finite.”17 In the modern state, civil society is one of the most important institutions which provide this discipline or education. In the first place, it produces in individuals the habit of work. At the same time, it makes individuals dependent upon one another for the satisfaction of their needs. Finally, as we have seen, it turns self-seeking into a contribution to the satisfaction of the needs of all such that self-interest leads to the universal (PR, 129-30).

But still, how can commerce, trade, and wealth, which are generated in civil society, avoid corrupting custom and tradition and become compatible with Sittlichkeit? Hegel is certainly aware of Rousseau's argument that particular interest destroys custom and tradition. In fact, in the Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Hegel's general picture of the historical course of nations is quite similar to Rousseau's. For Hegel, nations in their youth create their own ethics, customs, and religion, and individuals assimilate themselves to them. The nation actively struggles to realize itself in the actual world and to make itself what it is. Once this has been accomplished, the nation starts to become inactive, self-indulgent, and it stagnates. At this point, “[i]ndividual interests seize control of the powers and resources which were formerly dedicated to the whole.” “Individuals withdraw into themselves and pursue their own ends, and this … is the nation's undoing.” As the nation declines, a new higher principle emerges, but always in another nation (IPH, 58-63). Thus, for Hegel much as for Rousseau, particular interests cause the downfall and corruption of nations.

But in the Philosophy of Right, while Hegel admits that particular interest or subjectivity destroyed the ancient world, he nevertheless insists that particular interest is an essential part of freedom (PR, 10, 123, 160. IPH, 70), and he claims that the “principle of modern states has prodigious strength and depth because it allows the principle of subjectivity to progress to its culmination in the extreme of self-subsistent personal particularity, and yet at the same time brings it back to the substantive unity and so maintains this unity in the principle of subjectivity itself” (PR, 161). In other words, the key here is that wealth, commerce, and trade as well as the particular interests they promote do not ultimately erode custom, tradition, and Sittlichkeit, as Rousseau argued, because in civil society particular interest is not only compatible with the universal, it actively generates the universal. Rousseau could not see this.

Hegel recognizes that customs and traditions change as they are molded by changing social and political institutions, and he develops a theory which allows us to understand this change without concluding that it will lead to corruption. He takes up Kant's philosophy of history and Adam Smith's concept of an invisible hand to show that particular interests and the customs and traditions formed by the discipline of civil society lead unconsciously to the common good. Far from being opposed to the common good and leading to corruption as for Rousseau, they lead to and reinforce the universal and thus are perfectly compatible with Sittlichkeit.

We have seen that Hegel objects to Kantian morality because it was abstract—cut off from the concrete world. He instead wants a morality rooted in the world of custom, tradition, feeling, passion, and interest. He wants Sittlichkeit, not Moralität. In this respect he is like Rousseau. But, as we have also seen, Rousseau's ideal society is a utopia where healthy customs and traditions simply must be given and where wealth and particular interest are a main source of their corruption. Thus, Hegel also appeals to Kant's dynamic philosophy of history so that he can envision the realization of an ideal state that can be compatible with wealth, commerce, and trade in the modern world. Hegel is able to make this very important connection between Kant and Rousseau because he is able to see two things: first, that given the socioeconomic interdependence of each upon all, particular interests can lead to the universal, and second, that social institutions, especially civil society, through education and discipline, produce customs and traditions that reinforce the tendency of particular interests to realize the universal. Thus, this Kantian dynamic not only leads to the universal, but is now concrete, that is, tied up with particular interests, passions, and activity which will produce a discipline that shapes customs and traditions as well as molds feelings, sentiments, and particular interests together with the universal common good.

Thus, we have three things: (1) morality which exists concretely in the world tied up with interests and passions. It exists there before us. We have Sittlichkeit, not an unrealized ought. (2) Yet this Sittlichkeit does not just have to be given or presupposed in utopian fashion as for Rousseau. It develops and is dynamic without becoming corrupted. And (3) it realizes the universal—the general will or the categorical imperative—not by a “virtue” which exists outside the concrete but in and through concrete interests and individuality.

While Hegel certainly accepts that part of Rousseau's concept of the general will which holds that individual interests realize the universal, he is nevertheless quite critical of other aspects of Rousseau's concept of the general will. Hegel says that Rousseau

takes the will only in a determinate form as the individual will, and he regards the universal will not as the absolutely rational element in the will, but only as a “general” will which proceeds out of this individual will as out of a conscious will. The result is that he reduces the union of individuals in the state to a contract and therefore to something based on their arbitrary wills, their opinion, and their capriciously given express consent; and abstract reasoning proceeds to draw the logical inferences which destroy the absolutely divine principle of the state, together with its majesty and absolute authority.18

Most commentators misunderstand what Hegel is saying here. They think he is criticizing Rousseau for understanding the general will as a particular will or the will of all.19 Rousseau certainly does not do this and Hegel is not claiming that he does. By “individual will,” Hegel does not mean “particular will.” Hegel is here making much the same sort of criticism of Rousseau that, as we saw in Section II above, he made of Kant. Hegel is claiming that Rousseau understands the general will only from the perspective of individual consciousness—that for Rousseau only individual consciousnesses exist. Thus, for Rousseau, the general will is seen as the outcome of individual wills willing the common good rather than as the outcome of spirit. It follows from this that the individual wills must vote, that they are responsible for establishing the laws of the state, and thus that individuals rule. Hegel does not believe that all individuals should vote and he certainly does not believe that they should rule.20 He believes that this sort of thing led to the French Revolution. Moreover, while the individual will, for Rousseau, does realize the universal or general will, it sustains only an external relation to the general will much as virtue was external to the way of the world for Kant (PS, 358-59, NL, 85-89).

For Hegel to be able to reconcile the Kantian-Smithian principle of conflicting interests with Rousseauian custom, tradition, and Sittlichkeit, self-interest must not be thought to produce a universal external to itself. Self-interest must be understood to sustain an internal relation to the universal as its own essence. It must implicitly be the universal. For Rousseau, particular interest is seen as external to the universal much as interest or inclination were seen as external to and thus incompatible with morality and freedom for Kant. Thus, for Rousseau, in a society in which particular interest is powerful, it will be impossible to achieve the universal—the general will. Particular interest will appear to erode the ethical basis of the state—it will erode custom, tradition, and Sittlichkeit. Since particular interest and the universal are external and opposed to each other, the realization of one excludes the realization of the other. Particular interest is heteronomous. If viewed from the perspective of individual will where individuals sustain an external relation to the universal, Hegel agrees that one would have to come to the conclusion, much as Rousseau did, that particular interest erodes the universal. After all, Hegel himself admits that particular interest destroyed the ancient community. For Hegel, we must transcend the perspective of individual consciousness. Particular interests and the universal must be viewed as internally related—as two interacting elements of one spiritual reality, each molding and forming the other. The universal must be seen as the essential manifestation of the individuals and individuals as disciplined by the universal. Then particular interests—wealth, trade, and commerce—will not be seen as heteronomous. They will be seen as compatible with the universal and with freedom. Individuals will be related to their own essence within Sittlichkeit and community. To make this clearer, however, we must say a good deal more about spirit as well as about its relationship to the state and to the individual citizens.


Hegel's concept of spirit is most difficult to understand, let alone accept. In this section, I simply wish to explain this concept as clearly as possible without getting lost in details so that we can understand the political and historical views that depend upon it. I do not expect to persuade anyone of, nor am I persuaded by, every single thing involved here. At any rate, in the Phenomenology, Hegel discusses the rise of the modern state, and here we find a most important treatment of how spirit develops through alienation and estrangement (PS, 295-321). The development of the modern state and of culture occurs through a dialectical interaction that takes place between individual self-consciousness and the objective world. The very existence and development of this objective world, as well as the actualization and development of individual self-consciousness, depend upon the fact that self-consciousness alienates itself. Both sides here, which have become split and self-opposed, are in reality two sides of one spiritual unity. This fact, however, is not recognized by either side (PS, 294-95). Individual self-consciousness, for Hegel, alienates itself—it gives up its very essence—and thus objectifies itself in the world in the form of the state. The individual must alienate itself, in other words, it must serve, recognize, and obey this state. The state only becomes actual by gaining this recognition, obedience, and service. Through this objectification, individual self-consciousness gains concreteness and universality. It sets itself up as the universal spiritual substance (PS, 306ff.); the state, for Hegel, is nothing but the objectified essence—the recognition, service, and sacrifice—of individual self-consciousness.

Individual self-consciousness creates its world through alienation, but at the same time its world takes on a life of its own and appears independent of individual self-consciousness. The objectified state power turns upon individuals. It becomes estranged. It dominates and controls them. It demands their obedience and recognition. In this way it molds, disciplines, and educates individuals. It demands that they conform themselves to this universal substance. As individual self-consciousness alienates itself, conforms itself, recognizes, and serves this state, the state gains reality; it becomes universal, accepted, and recognized. The more power this state gains, the more power it will have to mold and discipline the individual subjects and make them conform to this universal reality.

The subject is being constituted by and as a universal actual substance. The state gains in reality by embodying and institutionalizing the reality, the essence, the service of the subjects. The subjects gain reality in being disciplined by, in conforming to, and in being recognized by the universal reality of the state. The state is the subject's own reality—its essence, its self. At the same time, the state disciplines its subjects, educates them, and lifts them to universality.

Both individual self-consciousness and the objective world of the state are at the same time parts of, and are constituting, a single spiritual unity—a single cultural world which is divided and self-opposed. But this unity goes unrecognized. Moreover, it must go unrecognized. If either side were to understand this mutual process, their development would falter. If individual self-consciousness saw that the state was its own alienated essence, it would cease to take the state as essential or to respect and serve it. If the state were to see its dependence on its subjects, the state would also cease to take itself seriously. It would cease to take itself as essential and universal, and thus it would lose the power to effectively mold and discipline its subjects toward this universality (PS, 310-13).

What is occurring here, despite the fact that it is estranged and goes unrecognized, is that individual self-consciousness is being related to and rooted in the objective substantial world, not in the sense of being related heteronomously to something other and outside itself, but, in the sense that the other, the objective, is its own essence, is itself objectified. Moreover, this other—which is its essence—is the universal. It has the universal and rational form of the state and its laws. Individual self-consciousness is thus establishing itself as the universal.

Ultimately, for Hegel, this estrangement and lack of recognition must be overcome. To be free, individual self-consciousness must come to see that the objective order is its universalized essence, and it must consciously will to serve and obey that universal, rational, and objective order rather than be dominated and coerced to do so. This recognition, for Hegel, can only be gained after self-consciousness has been raised to the level of religion. As we see in following sections of the Phenomenology, religion, the relationship between individual self-consciousness and God which embraces the totality of things, develops through a dialectical process of interaction much like that between individual self-consciousness and the state. Each establishes and realizes the other (PS, 329-54, 453-78). Religion, for Hegel, is spirit's self-consciousness. Religion is the spirit of a people or of a culture reflecting upon itself, understanding itself, and committing itself to its mission and its truth. Only at this level do we gain a consciousness with sufficient scope and universality to see that individual self-consciousness and the objective state are simply two interacting parts of one spiritual unity, and only then can we consciously will to serve and obey that objective order which we see is our own essence.

In the last section of the Phenomenology, Hegel says, this “alienation of self-consciousness … has not merely a negative but a positive meaning … on the one hand self-consciousness itself alienates itself; for in doing so it establishes itself as object, or, by reason of the indivisible unity characterizing self-existence, sets up the object as itself.” This is the process of alienation establishing the state that we have just discussed. Hegel continues:

there is also this other moment in the process, that self-consciousness has equally superseded this self-alienation and objectification, and is thus at home with itself in its otherness as such. … The cultivated self-consciousness, which has traversed the world of spirit in self-estrangement, has, through its self-alienation, produced the thing as its own self; it retains itself, therefore, still in the thing, and knows the thing to have no independence.21

Thus, when self-consciousness realizes that the object has no independence, that the object is the result of its own alienation, self-consciousness knows the object as itself and is no longer estranged. Estrangement, from the beginning, meant that the subject and the object were two sides of the same spiritual unity. They had become split and self-opposed such that this unity went unrecognized. When this unity is recognized, the estrangement is overcome. Even objectification has been overcome. The object no longer appears as an independent other. It appears as one's own essence.

Hegel's political aim is not to change or remake the world, but to reconcile us to it by allowing us to grasp it in thought fully and adequately (PR, 11-12). Estrangement is overcome by recognizing what it is. Individual self-consciousness does not cease to alienate itself; it simply recognizes that it alienates itself. It recognizes that the state is its own essence. It then continues to alienate itself, to serve and conform itself to the state, its own essence, but now it does so consciously and thus becomes free.

To understand these matters more completely, we must discuss their metaphysical and epistemological background. Hegel's Introduction to the Encyclopaedia, while interspersed with a discussion of other matters, attempts to review the history of philosophy. Hegel indicates the strengths and weaknesses of past philosophical systems and indicates what in them must be preserved as philosophy develops. Later philosophical systems, for Hegel, are always the outcome of previous philosophical systems (L, 23). Hegel certainly views his own system this way.

For Hegel, the strength of traditional (pre-Kantian) metaphysics, and what must be preserved from it, is its lack of any antithesis between subject and object. Traditional metaphysics believes that it brings universal objects before the mind as they really are. It takes the laws and forms of thought to be the laws and forms of things. Thought grasps the very nature of things; it directly grasps absolute, objective, universal reality (L, 60-61).

On the other hand, modern empiricism abandons metaphysics and turns to experience. For empiricism, whatever is true must be a particular in the actual world and immediately present to sensation. Individuals must feel themselves present and involved in every fact of knowledge they accept. While the object is merely subjective experience, nevertheless, this experience is immediately present and completely certain to consciousness (L, 12, 76-78).

Kant's critical philosophy also considers experience to be the sole foundation for cognition. Moreover, all experience, for Kant, presupposes a transcendental unity of self-consciousness. The multiplicity of diverse sensations is brought into a unity only within a unified self-consciousness. These sensations are constituted into an object by this self-consciousness (L, 82, 87-89). Thus, Kant's strength is the same as empiricism's strength; an object must be my immediate experience for knowledge to be possible. But also, for Hegel, Kant's strength lies in the most important notion that the object is constituted by self-consciousness.

Hegel's philosophical system combines and synthesizes the strengths of these three previous philosophical systems. It combines the direct grasp of universal objective reality characteristic of traditional metaphysics with the Kantian and empiricist principle that all experience is immediately mine within consciousness, and it combines these with the Kantian principle that all objects are constituted within a single unified self-consciousness. Hegel's system is a reorganized synthetic unity of the positive achievements of all previous philosophy.

To achieve this synthesis, Hegel must abandon Kant's unknown thing-in-itself, which he very clearly finds unacceptable in any case (L, 91-92), and he must abandon the perspective of individual consciousness.

Since Hegel rejects the unknown thing-in-itself but still holds that experience is constituted by self-consciousness, he clearly cannot hold that self-consciousness constitutes mere phenomenal appearance cut off from a noumenal thing-in-itself which remains unknown. If we constitute experience and if the thing-in-itself is not to be unknown but known, then, for Hegel, we must constitute reality.

But if it were only individual self-consciousness that constituted reality we would be plunged into a subjectivist chaos. What is required is an absolute self-consciousness (L, 93-94)—the consciousness of God, or a consciousness which has raised itself to the absolute perspective of God, which is to say, for Hegel, the religious self-consciousness of a developed culture. Here we have a total and universal consciousness which in constituting reality (as for Kant) would have reality immediately present to itself within consciousness (as for Kant and empiricism), and since it includes all reality—there being no reality outside such a consciousness—it would also have that immediate grasp of objective reality characteristic of traditional metaphysics. The subjective principle of modern philosophy is compatible with the objectivity of traditional philosophy only for an absolute consciousness. God's subjectivity, because of its totality, is objective and absolute. Thus, in overcoming estrangement, as we have seen, cultural or religious self-consciousness faces all of reality constituted by itself and immediately present to itself as its own essence.

We must notice that what we have just said here describes at the metaphysical and epistemological level exactly what we earlier said about freedom in the moral and political sphere. Hegel's view that the subjective rationality of the individual must fit with the objective rationality embedded in the laws and institutions of the state is the same as his claim that the objective reality of traditional metaphysics must be immediately grasped within the subjective consciousness of individuals. This identity of subject and object is possible because the subject has constituted the object as its own essence through a dialectical process of alienation. Moreover, the fact that freedom requires that this identity of subjective and objective rationality be reinforced by custom, tradition, and feeling is the same as Hegel's insistence that our grasp of objective reality be brought home to the personal and particular experience of the individual that we find in empiricism.

Furthermore, as particular interests come into conflict, they lead to the universal—to rationality objectively embedded in our world in agreement with subjective rationality, that is, to the objectivity of traditional metaphysics. That they do so without being external to the universal (as self-interest was external to the general will for Rousseau or as Kantian virtue was external to the way of the world) can now be more clearly understood because it has become clear how individual interests and the universal are two interacting parts of one spiritual unity that constitute each other. The universal is produced as the alienation of the particular actions of individuals. The universal or the state is the individual's essence—its self—alienated and objectified. Particular interests and the universal are not heteronomous. They appear to be external to each other only if we adopt the perspective of individual consciousness.

Moreover, from what we have already said, we can also begin to understand more clearly the higher form of Sittlichkeit that Hegel wants for the modern world. This Sittlichkeit combines the rational reflective component of Moralität with the transcendence of the ought found in traditional Sittlichkeit. This higher Sittlichkeit is rational reflective morality concretely embedded in the customs, traditions, character, and feeling of individuals—the objective ethical substance of traditional metaphysics (the identity of subjective and objective reason) embedded in the personal experience of the individual (as for empiricism). This connection is possible because of the dialectical process by which individuals constitute their substantial ethical world as their own essence and then are disciplined and educated by it.

All that we have said so far in this section will also help us to understand the transition from civil society to the state as it appears in the Philosophy of Right. Critics often object that Hegel is not a liberal, that he in fact subordinates individuals to a powerful and authoritarian state. This, at least in part, is very misleading. In the first place, civil society is the realm in which individual will has its rights, the realm where particular interests legitimately claim their satisfaction, and this is a crucial element of freedom of Hegel.

In civil society, particular interests are viewed, much as for Kant and Rousseau, from the perspective of individual consciousness and therefore individual will appears to remain external to the universal. Particular interests do lead to the universal, but they do so only unconsciously. Thus, for Hegel, we must move to the level of the state where consciousness transcends the realm of individual will and enters the realm of spirit. Here the rationality implicit in civil society (the unconscious tendency of particular interests to realize the universal) is posited and administered as law and thus becomes conscious, is recognized, and made actual (PR, 134-36). Here individual self-consciousness and the universal are not external to one another. Estrangement from the objective and universal states that power has been overcome and thus individuals consciously will the universal and become free.

Hegel continuously tells us in the Philosophy of Right that the relationship that is established between the individual citizens and the ethical substance—the laws and institutions of the state—is such that individuals are related to their own essence, their own substance.22 Indeed, we have now seen what Hegel means here. The state is the alienated essence of the individual citizens. The state is constituted by them, but not as an other—not as heteronomous. The state is their own essence objectified and universalized. Hegel does indeed subordinate individuals to the state, but thus only to their own essence—to themselves. This, then, is a form of objective self-determination because the subjective reason of the individual accords with the rationality objectively embedded in the laws and institutions of the state.23

For freedom to be realized, particular interests cannot lead to the universal unconsciously as they do in civil society; the state cannot be one's own essence in an estranged form without this being consciously recognized; and subjective and objective reason cannot accord unconsciously. All of this must occur consciously.24 We must recognize that particular interests do lead to the universal and begin to consciously pursue the universal in pursuing our own interests. We must recognize that the state is our own essence and subordinate ourselves to it consciously and intentionally. We must recognize that subjective and objective reason accord and act consciously for the sake of objective as well as subjective reason—for the sake of the rational laws as well as our own rational maxims. Moreover, the objective rational laws of the state immediately present to the subjective rationality of the individual give rise to a discipline which molds the customs, feelings, and interests of the individual so that they too consciously support the universal. Thus we have Sittlichkeit in the modern state (PR, 105).

Hegel wants to combine the subjectivity of the modern world with the objectivity of the ancient world. Both civil society and the state are crucially important here. Without civil society, there would be no individualism and no realm for the satisfaction of particular interest which is so important as an element of freedom. There would be no conflict of interests as an actual force leading to the universal either within the state or in history. And there would be no rootedness in concrete interests, passions, property, trade, and commerce. Without civil society, the realm of the state and spirit would float into abstraction. On the other hand, without the state, individuals would never rise above particular interests; they would never get beyond an unconscious tendency toward the universal. They would never get beyond subjective reason to reason embedded objectively in their laws and institutions. They would never confront their own essence objectified and thus could not be free in obeying the state. In short, they would not reach spirit.

To reconcile modern subjectivity with traditional objectivity, two things are necessary: (1) the objective must be absorbed within the subjective, not exist independently outside it. And (2) the subjective must gain enough scope and universality to be objective and absolute. It must embrace the totality of things like a God whose subjectivity is objective because it is total.

By lifting individual self-consciousness to spirit we see that the state is our own essence, that subjective and objective reason are identical, that the objective reality of traditional metaphysics is immediately grasped within subjective consciousness. The objective world is not other or heteronomous, but is absorbed within subjective consciousness. But subjective consciousness at this point is no longer merely an individual consciousness. It has been molded and disciplined by the objective substantial power of the state. It has become the cultural consciousness of a people. It has been lifted to the universal, to objective ethical rationality. At the level of the state, this consciousness becomes the final highest authority—the sovereignty of the state constitutes consciousness as sovereign. In this way, subjective consciousness gains scope and universality.

Hegel is certainly not an authoritarian, let alone a totalitarian. As Avineri has shown, there is even a strong element of pluralism in Hegel's thought.25 Hegel also endorses freedom of the press and of speech, and he advocates social mobility (PR, 132, 205). The state is also very definitely concerned with the protection of individuals, their property, and their particular interests, but these are not the ultimate aims of the state (PR, 71, 156, 209). The ultimate aim of the state is to lift its citizens to spirit, to their own essence, and to the Divine. Only at this level is the individual fully realized, at home with itself, and rationally self-determined.

Hegel wants to avoid a sovereign like that of Hobbes who is external to the citizens and wields power over them. Nor will he accept a state like that of Rousseau, for whom the people are sovereign. Just as much, he wants to avoid Kant's autocrat who is external to the citizens and wields power over them as much as for Hobbes despite the fact that the autocrat gives the people the laws they would have given themselves.26 For Hegel, the citizens do not give themselves their own laws by voting on them as for Rousseau. The citizens, however, do get the sorts of laws they would have given themselves, but they are not given to them by an autocrat as for Kant. The laws and institutions of the state, for Hegel, arise through the historical development of spirit in which the subjective rationality of individuals accords with the objective rationality embedded in the laws of the state—the laws of the state are the laws that subjective rationality would give itself. Through alienation the citizens create the state as their own essence and are molded by their state. For Hegel the government or the state is not external to the citizens; it is their own essence. For Hegel, sovereignty must be understood not at the level of individual will—the individual will either of a people or a government—but at the level of spirit. Hegel's view of sovereignty is thus quite new.

No one of the powers or agencies in the state is sovereign for Hegel. They have no independent authority, but are grounded in the Idea of the whole (PR, 179-80). Certainly the monarch is not sovereign. Any state simply requires an agency with the authority of final decision, otherwise disputes could continue eternally. This authority of final decision rests with the monarch. But this just means that the monarch has “to say yes and dot the ‘i’.”27 Generally speaking, Hegel's monarch is rather weak.28 Hegel does at times speak of the monarch as sovereign (PR, 182, 186), but by this he means that the monarch is a figurehead who represents sovereignty. On the other hand, at least in home affairs, Hegel is willing to say that sovereignty resides in the people, not the people as an aggregate of individual wills but the people as the whole of the state (PR, 182-83). Sovereignty lies in the organic whole bound together by Sittlichkeit at the level of spirit. It does not lie either with the government or the people understood as individual wills. It lies in this spiritual totality as a whole. This possibility is due to the cohesion of this whole which is bound together by the integration of particular interests embedded in property, commerce, and trade which nevertheless lead to the universal. The whole is also bound together by custom, tradition, and Sittlichkeit which embed this universal in individual feeling and character. It is bound together in that subjective reason and objective reason are identical and in the sense that the state is one's own essence. For Hegel the sovereign is not to be seen as an entity which wields power over others from outside.29 Rather, Hegel is concerned with power and authority which binds people together, makes them cohere, lifts them to their own essence at the level of spirit, and makes them rationally self-determined. They are not ruled by the subjective rationality of either the government or the people, but by the objective rationality embedded in the state as a whole which, however, accords with the subjective rationality of each. To return to individual will, to insist upon voting or subjective rationality, in Hegel's opinion, would be to break this spiritual whole and to move toward making individual will sovereign, either the individual will of a government or that of the aggregate of the people. If one chooses the latter, then as for Rousseau, we would have to give up wealth, commerce, and trade and thus the ideal society would be impossible in the modern world.


  1. “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” (UH), in On History: Immanuel Kant, ed. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 11-13, 15.

  2. UH, 23. “Perpetual Peace” (PP), in On History, 114.

  3. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (F), trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 39ff.

  4. F, 62-63. Critique of Practical Reason (CPrR), trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), 66.

  5. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 423.

  6. Natural Law (NL), trans. T. M. Knox (N.C.: U of Pennsylvania P, 1975), 93. Hegel's Philosophy of Right (PR), trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1967), 209, 212-13.

  7. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction (IPH), trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975), 71-72.

  8. Phenomenology of Spirit (PS), trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1977), 228-30.

  9. PS, 235. See also Aesthetics, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1975), 1:56-61.

  10. F, 10, 13-17, 44, 53-54, 60-61. CPrR, 28, 31.

  11. PR, 12, 32-33, 90-91, 163-64. IPH, 70, 97, 146. Aesthetics, 1:98, 182-83.

  12. The Logic of Hegel (L), trans. William Wallace (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968), 91-92.

  13. On the Social Contract (SC), ed. Roger D. Masters, trans. Judith R. Masters (New York: St. Martin's, 1978), 59n, 62-63, 66, 110-11.

  14. “Political Economy” in SC, 222, 77.

  15. “Discourse on Inequality” (DI) in The First and Second Discourses, trans. Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters (New York: St. Martin's, 1964), 151-54, 157-59.

  16. Philosophy of History (PH), trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), 407 (Hegel's italics).

  17. PR, 125; translation altered by changing “maturing (bildet)” to “educating.”

  18. PR, 157, see also 33. Also Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. E. S. Haldane and Francis H. Simson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), 3:402.

  19. E.g., Shlomo Avineri, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1972), 184. Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975), 372.

  20. PR, 157, 202-03. PS, 357-59. PH, 452.

  21. The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie, 2d ed. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966), 789-92; translation altered slightly; cf. PS, 479-81. For a further discussion of alienation and estrangement, see my Schiller, Hegel, and Marx (Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1982), 40-56.

  22. PR, 105-06, 155, 160-61, 259.

  23. PR, 3, 12, 106, 125. IHP, 97. PH, 439.

  24. PR, 3, 29-30, 155-56, 163-64.

  25. Avineri, 167-75. Hegel advocates pluralism in religion and even the toleration of dissenting sects that are allowed to maintain their own customs, traditions, and religious views; PR, 168-69.

  26. “An Old Question Raised Again,” in On History, 146, 150. PP, 120.

  27. PR, 181, 288-89. Though the monarch does command the army; PR, 212.

  28. For example, he is bound by the decisions of his counsellors; PR, 288.

  29. At least not in domestic affairs, though this might be true in foreign relations; see PR, 212-13.

Christoph Menke (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Menke, Christoph. “The Dissolution of the Beautiful: Hegel's Theory of Drama.”1L'Esprit Créateur 35, no. 3 (fall 1995): 19-36.

[In the following essay, Menke analyzes Hegel's aesthetics, focusing on his theory of drama and his views about the purpose and ethical dimensions of art.]


Hegel's thesis of the end of art says that “art, considered in its highest determination, is a thing of the past for us,” and that, therefore, “it has lost for us genuine truth and life.”2 As Paul De Man points out, this “has usually been interpreted or criticized or, in some rare instances, praised as a historical diagnosis disproven or borne out by history”; hence it has been interpreted as a reference to the historicity of art.3 Accordingly, art belongs in another, a past, historical epoch; only in that epoch “is there [“gibt es”] art as a distinct yet undetachable moment of the epoch in its totality. At the same time, however, Hegel stresses that this historical belonging is valid for art only in its “highest determination.” Indeed, according to De Man's reading, Hegel's Aesthetics must be understood to mean that it is art itself which makes its “highest determination,” into something “past.”

De Man thus has understood Hegel's thesis as referring to the duplicity of his aesthetics: “Dedicated to the preservation and monumentalization of classical art, it also contains all the elements which make such a preservation impossible from the start” (De Man 773). In contrast, I wish to show in the following pages that Hegel's Aesthetics not only implicitly contains this thesis—that it is art itself which makes its highest determination into a thing of the past—but also explicitly formulates it. This explicit formulation is found in Hegel's genre theory [Gattungspoetik] of the drama. There Hegel calls dramatic poetry, in its perfected Greek form, “the highest stage of poetry and of art generally” (Ä III, 474; K 1158). Only drama is capable of “presenting the beautiful in its most complete and profound development” (Ä I, 267; K 205). Precisely because it is the “highest” art—the beautiful “in its most complete and profound development”—dramatic poetry is not art's “most beautiful” form; it is not the beautiful in its ideality. Instead it is the Greek sculptures which are “the Ideals in and for themselves, the independent eternal shapes [die für sich seienden, ewigen Gestalten], the center of plastic classical beauty” (Ä II, 92; K 490). Therefore Hegel is thinking of sculpture in particular when he says of classical art in general that “nothing can be or become more beautiful” (Ä II, 128; K 517). Hegel continues, “Yet there is something higher than the beautiful appearance of spirit in its immediate sensuous shape, even if this shape be created by spirit as adequate to itself” (ibid.). And the first step toward this “something higher,” from out of the beautiful, is the deepening of the beautiful in dramatic poetry. If sculpture forms the “proper center” of classical art, and therefore of all beautiful art, drama forms its margin (Ä II, 49; K 455). In Hegel, the drama is, already in its Greek form, on the way toward being a “no-longer-beautiful” art. In Hegel's historical scheme [Betrachtung] of the “particular forms of the beautiful in art [Kunstschönen],” drama belongs in the epoch of the “dissolution of the classical form of art” (Ä II, 107ff.; K 502ff., emphasis mine—C. M.).

The theory of the drama is the place in which Hegel explicitly describes (in clear reference to contemporary Romantic concepts) an art dissolving in beauty. In the following, Hegel's theory of drama interests me not only because there it becomes clear that his Aesthetics is far less duplicitous than De Man maintains—and this because the theory of drama makes doubtful the claim that Hegel actually was concerned with, as De Man writes, “the preservation and monumentalization of classical art.” Rather, what interests me in Hegel's theory of drama is this: Hegel's description of the dissolution of classical art in dramatic art gives a meaning to the thesis of the end of art, a meaning not grasped by De Man's interpretation. The thesis that art is “in its highest determination a thing of the past for us,” refers not only to beauty as the highest determination of classical art, but also to the beautiful's dissolution as the “highest determination” of dramatic art. The very event in which De Man sees the relevance of Hegel's Aesthetics—the dissolution of the beautiful, which takes place in art—this event is, according to Hegel, no longer something present “for us,” but is rather “a thing of the past.” Hegel's thesis maintains, contrary to De Man, that “we” find ourselves in a world after art, a world which does not merely come after the beauty of (classical) art, but which also no longer requires the dissolution of the beautiful in (dramatic) art.

It is this radicalized version of Hegel's thesis which I want to discuss in the following pages (sections 5 and 6). This requires first, however, a more detailed presentation of the extent to which drama is the dissolution, in art, of the “highest determination” of art (see sections 3 and 4). This will show that Hegel's description of the dissolution of the beautiful in drama—and thus also the thesis that the dissolution is “something past for us”—bind together two different levels: the dramatic dissolution has both an aesthetic and an ethical aspect. Why this is so is evident in Hegel's understanding of the beautiful ideal of classical art which dissolves in dramatic art.


Hegel determines the ideal of the beautiful, which the drama puts in question, in such a way that it aims at a twofold reconciliation: internal and external. Internally the beautiful completes a “reconciliation” which consists of a seamless integration; the beautiful is the “accord” between spiritual content and sensual reality (Ä I, 205; K 155). The idea, as beautiful ideal, stands therefore “in externality, self-enclosed, free, self-reliant, as sensuously blessed in itself, enjoying and delighting in its own self” (Ä I, 207; K 157). In the beautiful, or ideal, the spiritual is concretized and the real is transfigured. “Accordingly, the Ideal is actuality, withdrawn from the profusion of details and accidents, insofar as the inner appears itself in this externality, lifted above and opposed to universality, as living individuality” (Ä I, 207; K 156).

This says already that “reconciliation” is not only an internal (structural) determination of the beautiful, in the relation of its moments, but that it is also an external (functional) determination of the beautiful, in its relation to reality. That the “ideal work of art confronts us like a blessed god” means not only that it is able to seamlessly integrate, as only gods can, inner and outer, spiritual and sensual (Ä I, 208; K 157). It also means that this is the higher, the true perspective. Therefore fine art is “divine service”; it is one of the “realms of absolute spirit” and a form of “religion” (Ä I, 139; K 100f). If, in “finite reality,” the “determinate characteristics of truth appear as exterior to one another,” so fine art belongs in “the region of a higher, more substantial truth, in which all oppositions and contradictions in the finite can find their final resolution, and freedom its full satisfaction” (Ä I, 137f; K 99f.). Fine art not only brings into being a reconciliation of its own moments, it also brings to light the reconciliation which is lost in the finite world and its torn, divided consciousness.

Fine art shares, with the other forms of absolute spirit, namely, religion (in the genuine sense) and philosophy, the task of reconciling the divisions continually erupting in finitude (Ä 136; K 99). What distinguishes art from these other forms of absolute spirit is the medium in which art brings about its reconciliation. This medium is, as “immediate and therefore sensuous knowledge, a knowledge in the form and shape of the sensuous and objective itself, in which the Absolute is presented to intuition and feeling” (Ä I, 139; K 101). This says not only how the beautiful reconciles, but also what it reconciles; as reconciliation in the medium of sensual knowledge, the beautiful can only reconcile that which allows itself to be intuited as sensually reconciled. Only the “immediate unity … of substantiality and individuality” (Ä I, 244; K 185), which Hegel designates as ethicity [Sittlichkeit], fulfills this condition. Through its particular medium—the sensual, immediate knowledge, or intuition—the “religion of art” also has a particular content: ethicity [Sittlichkeit]. “If we ask, which is the actual Spirit which has the consciousness of its absolute essence in the religion of art, we find that it is the ethical [sittliche] or the true Spirit.”5 The works of fine art can only be the reconciled or ideal form of a reality which is itself already a “work,” the unity of universal “substance” and individual “being-for-itself.” Universal substance and individual being-for-itself are united in the traditional ethicity [Sittlichkeit] of the Greek polis; in the polis there is universal substance only as the realization of individual being-for-itself, and there is individual being-for-itself only as the realization of the universal substance (see PhG 325; M 264). The ethicity [Sittlichkeit] is therefore a doubled work, and, at the same time, one. In its ethical labor, the individual self makes itself into a “subjective artwork” only in that it builds the “universal Work.” Just so, the entire people, in its self-rule, makes itself into a “political artwork” in that “each accomplishes his own Work.” Both the individual self and the entire people experience their “indivisible harmony” in the “objective artwork” of the beautiful ideal.6

In this intersection of beauty and ethicity, which makes the beautiful sculptures into “living individuality” and the citizens of the polis into “plastic natures,” it becomes clear that the “religion of art” is never solely “aesthetic,” rather, it has in itself an ethical determination. The beautiful or ideal art is life [Lebenskunst], as individual as political. The thought of the aesthetic as a harmonious, closed work is continually bound to the idea that ethicity [Sittlichkeit] is accomplished as a work. Thus reads Hegel's diagnosis in the Lectures on Fine Art, looking not only back to Greek art, but also at contemporary attempts to revive Greek art, in particular German classicism. Hegel treats the classical program of an aesthetic restitution of the beautiful ideal under the title of an ethical “Reconstitution of Individual Independence,” as an ethical [sittliche] reconciliation of individual self and substantial commonality (Ä I, 255; K 195). Beauty and ethicity [Sittlichkeit] are inseparably bound to one another: the ethical [sittliche] is the content of the beautiful, and the beautiful is the expression of the ethical [sittliche]. The unity of ethicity [Sittlichkeit] and beauty is therefore double: a unity within the ethical [sittliche] as well as within the beautiful, which is at the same time a unity between the ethical [sittliche] and the beautiful. To attain the unity of the ethical [sittliche] and of the beautiful, respectively, means to reconcile ethicity [Sittlichkeit] and beauty with one another.

That which Hegel called the “highest determination” of art consists in this double reconciliation. Thus drama's labor of “dissolution” goes to work on this reconciliation. The experience of drama is the experience of the dissolution of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation—dissolution that takes place in art. Under the concept of the dramatic, Hegel points out those traits in which art renders inoperative its own claim to reconciliation. That which drama dissolves, the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation, is at once aesthetic and ethical, and this is also true of the dramatic dissolution itself: it is as much an ethical as an aesthetic dissolution. At the same time, it is a dissolution of the reconciliation of the ethical with the aesthetic.

Hegel himself did not expressly take up this doubling of the dramatic dissolution—a dissolution of the unity of the dissolution. This doubling is not only a consequence of Hegel's placing drama at the margin of the beautiful, it also determines Hegel's description of the dissolution. This description encompasses two different levels.7 Thus Hegel describes the drama first as a putting into question of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation's claim to integration. Hegel thereby understands drama as the place of an ethical experience, the experience of a heterogeneity that cannot be ethically [sittlich] integrated (section 3). At this level of an ethical, and content-oriented, reading, the drama is at first an insoluble crisis of beautiful ethicity [Sittlichkeit]. However, Hegel sees in drama a surpassing of ethicity [Sittlichkeit]. This happens in the drama insofar as not only the integration, but also the objectivity, of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation prove to be illusions. Therefore drama is the place of an aesthetic, more precisely, a poetic, experience: the experience of performance (section 4).


The central ethical experience—which situates drama at the margin of art, because it puts into question the beautiful center of art in its power to ethically [sittlich] reconcile—is the experience of fate.8 The experience of fate—the “turn into fortune or misfortune” (Aristotle)—is the experience of an event that can no longer be integrated into an ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] work. Its strangeness is something that cannot be made “my own”: fate is something that happens to us, without our being able to grasp it as made by us. “Beauty is purpose in itself, which, allied with immediate existence, brings itself to prominence. Above the beautiful and its particular purposes floats the universal as subjectless power, without wisdom, undetermined in itself; this is fatum, cold necessity.”9 Fate is the limit of the beautiful, upon which its reconciliation irremediably breaks apart. At the same time, however, the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation breaks upon fate only because fate breaks forth from within the reconciliation itself. Therefore the breaking apart of the beautiful reconciliation in the strangeness of fate is nothing other than the beautiful's own fate: in drama, fate takes the stage [auftritt] against the beautiful.

In drama, the beautiful reconciliation is transformed into the “cold necessity” of fate, because in drama the individuals no longer stand side by side, as do sculptures, “in motionless eternal repose,” rather they confront one another (Ä I, 232; K 176-77). In drama, the “plastic” individuals, in their highest form, gods,

set themselves in motion with particular ends in view, because by the situations and collisions confronting them in concrete reality they are drawn hither and thither in order now to help here, now to hinder or destroy there. These separate relationships into which the gods enter as individual agents retain an aspect of contingency which obscures the substantiality of the Divine, however much that may remain also as the dominant basis, and lures the gods into the clashes and battles of the finite world and its restrictions.

(Ä II, 108; K 502f.)

The dramatic event confronts the beautiful individuality with its own finitude: a finitude that is “itself immanent” to the beautiful reconciliation. This “finitude” is the plurality of ethical [sittlich] moments; this plurality brings to the fore oppositions in the beautiful reconciliation.

Both moments of ethicity [Sittlichkeit], the common substance and the individual subjectivity, are in themselves plural. The common ethical [sittliche] substance consists of a multiplicity of values; hence, the moral-beautiful integration of individual subjects into the community occurs differently each time in the orientation toward different values. Just so, the other moment of ethicity [Sittlichkeit], the individual subjectivity, consists of a multiplicity of individuals; hence the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schöne] integration of the community with its members is realized each time through different individuals. Because both moments are already plural in themselves, their reconciliation must also fragment into a multiplicity of ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schöne] reconciliations; from both sides the beautiful reconciliation pluralizes itself into a multiplicity of different reconciliations of one and the same ethicity [Sittlichkeit]. This designates, according to Hegel, the basic conflict of classical tragedy: the separation and opposition of different forms of the same reconciliation, variously embodied in the dramatic characters. Between these different characters [Gestalten], therefore, a reconciliation is no longer possible. The fate presented in drama thus makes the multiplicity of ethical [sittlichen] moments hold its own over against the unity of its beautiful reconciliation. The dramatic confrontations have their basis in the immanent tension of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] world: between the fact of irreducible multiplicity and the claim of beautiful unity.

The ethical content of the drama, as crisis of ethical [sittlichen] reconciliation, consists in this insight into the indissoluble plurality of ethical [sittlichen] moments. Because the ethical [sittliche] reconciliation gains its ideal form only in the beautiful, this ethical experience implies at the same time an aesthetic experience. The drama articulates the ethical experience of the irreconcilable ethical [sittlichen] plurality, and thereby it also articulates the aesthetic experience of the powerlessness of the reconciliation in the beautiful. In the drama, the powerlessness of beauty comes to the fore; Hegel designates this as the hidden moment of “sublimity.” This hidden sublimity then becomes evident from the perspective of its dissolution in drama (see Ä II, 84; K 483). In this glance back from the “no-longer-beautiful” art, it becomes clear that the ideal fine art [schöne Kunst] is determined by a trait which Hegel had described as the peculiar trait of the “not-yet-beautiful” art: its reconciliation of reality rests, in truth, on an elevation above reality. In order to be able to reconcile reality, the beautiful must “purify” it; the dramatic confrontation with a non-integratable plurality discloses the fact that the beautiful does not reconcilingly surround reality, but rather purifies and corrects it (Ä I, 206; K 155). If the beautiful, however, can only reconcile reality through its elevation above reality, the result is the denigration of the beautiful to an ideal which can no longer be, for us, “the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself” (Ä I, 41; K 103). Consequently, along with this elevation of fine art above reality comes the “limitation … which we are accustomed to assign to art in our contemporary life” (ibid.). Drama forces the beautiful to retreat into sublimity and hereby forces it to confess its powerlessness in the face of reality. In this way the drama relegates the beautiful to a sphere alongside reality, the irreconcilability of which it can no longer dissolve, but only compensate for.


The previous section has shown that Hegel sees in drama not only the ethical experience of an insoluble crisis of ethicity [Sittlichkeit], but also the aesthetic experience of the powerlessness of beauty. At the same time, not only does the drama foreground the inability of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schöne] reconciliation to fulfill its claim to integration, but also foregrounds why this is so: the powerlessness of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] integration owes itself to its “lack of inner subjectivity”—in the objectivity, or more precisely, in the illusion of objectivity of the beautiful (Ä II, 110; K 504). Reconciliation completes itself in the beautiful without the “aspect of subjective self-knowing unity and infinity” (ibid.). The reconciliation of ethicity [Sittlichkeit] in the beautiful ideal “does not appear truly as spiritual subject, but confronts our contemplation only in its objectivity without any conscious spirit of its own” (ibid.).

That the objectivity of the beautiful is the reason for its powerlessness can be experienced only through a fundamentally other reading of drama. In the previously given explanation, Hegel had called an experience (and a manner of presentation) “dramatic” which experience the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schöne] integration as illusion. The drama articulates the experience of a specific ethical content: that of a plurality which cannot be integrated into an ethical [sittliche] unity, the ideal of which is the beautiful. The illusion of the objectivity of the beautiful is experienced in an entirely other way: not through the ethical content, but through the manner of its presentation in drama. The drama undercuts the objectivity of the beautiful, not through the presentation of an ethical experience, but through the poetic experience of this presentation. The specificity of this poetic experience which the drama makes possible is that it is a reflexive experience: the drama opens not only an ethical experience, but also the experience of the conditions of possibility of this experience and of its presentation. Here Hegel understands the drama in exactly the same way as Friedrich Schlegel had spoken of a poetry which “by analogy to the philosophical jargon must be called transcendental poetry,” because it is critical and “presents its producing along with its product.” It is “at once poetry and poetry of poetry,” which “presents itself along with each of its presentations” (Athenaeum Fragment 238).10 Drama opens not only an ethical but also a “poetic” experience; the drama brings to experience the appearance of objectivity because it reflects that which it presents as a “product” while reflecting itself as a “producing.”

More precisely delineated, there are two steps through which Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, attains this “transcendental poetic” determination of drama. The first step emphasizes the “separation” of art from the “existence” [Bestehen] of ethical reality: “Since the ethical nation [das sittliche Volk] lives in immediate unity with its substance and lacks the principle of the pure individuality of self-consciousness, the complete form of its religion [i.e., religion of art: C. M.] first appears as separated from its existence” (PhG, 513; M 425). Art, as the reconciliation of ethicity [Sittlichkeit], is at the same time constitutively separated from ethicity [Sittlichkeit]. This makes art into a “language,” separate from the “real activity” of ethicity [Sittlichkeit] as well as of the “cult” (PhG, 531; M 440f). This difference between real activity and artistic language, that is, the language character of art, emerges in the next step reflexively, in art itself. Art divides internally between epic and tragedy. Indeed the language of the epic “singer” is already the narrating “Mnemosyne”; the language of the epic singer is “recollection and a gradually developed inwardness, the remembrance of essence that formerly was directly present” (PhG 531; K 441). Yet the epic language remains constitutively referential, referring to “a reality, which, in content and in manner of presentation, is complete in itself and remote from the narrator as an individual” (Ä II, 322; K 1036). The epic singer is “the organ that vanishes in its content; what counts is not his own self but his Muse, his universal song” (PhG 531; K 441). In contrast, Hegel calls tragedy the “higher language” because it doesn't retreat from behind the objectivity of its content, but emerges uniquely in its genuine poetic character, as act of speaking (PhG 534f; M 443f). Tragedy reflects itself as “product” of a “producing” (Schlegel). The higher language is (self-) reflexive in its act-character. To put it in Paul De Man's language, tragedy, in contrast to epic, effects its own “constating” explicitly, that is to say, “performatively,” in the foregrounding of the “activity with which Spirit brings itself forth as object” (PhG 514; K 426). Drama contains more than an ethical experience of the crisis of ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schöner] reconciliation; it opens a performative experience, an experience of being-made and of making: the drama is the dissolution of the beautiful—in activity.

Hegel discusses this poetic performance in two different perspectives: as the production of unity and as the production of the elements of the artwork. Thereby the performative self-reflection of the drama reveals its unity as something made: “this unity emerges as a work” (PhG, 515; M 427). In the drama, unity appears otherwise than in the epic, where unity is something given and remembered; the drama unites itself from out of a manifold of different voices. From these voices the drama attains its unity, in such a way that it can be experienced as “product” of a “producing” activity. Thus, as Hegel writes in the Phenomenology of Spirit in regard to Oedipus, the drama makes a unity of a manifold, such that each voice appears as “divided,” and is not merely confronted by the other voice, but rather divides within itself and so refers to the other (PhG, 348; M 283f). The rhetorical figure of tragic irony is central to Hegel's discussion of the unity of drama—even though Hegel does not use this term so marked by Romantic theory of the drama. Accordingly, the hero's speech “is such that the conscious is bound up with the unconscious, what is one's own with what is alien to it” (PhG, 348; M 283). Through its figurality dramatic speech works against its content: conflict on the level of content is put out of play by a figural bond and thereby the unity of the drama can be experienced in dramatic speech as a rhetorically worked “Work,” as product of a figural “activity.”

In the performative self-reflection of drama, however, it is not only unity that is experienced in its production, but also each single element is experienced in its production; “there are” no such elements without the activity of their production. This is shown in exemplary fashion in the performance [Aufführung] of the drama, in the “cooperative” activity of acting which produces the elements of the drama, the characters: “these characters exist as actual human beings who impersonate the heroes and portray them, not in the form of a narrative, but in the actual speech of the actors themselves” (PhG 534f; M 444). The activity of acting consists in embodying the “characters” of the heroes. These characters are indeed differentiated, as masks, from the “actual human beings,” but they have no existence of their own; they must be made by the speaking and doing of “actual human beings,” through a transfiguration of reality into elements of an artwork. And just as Hegel discusses the unity of the drama in the figure of tragic irony, so here Hegel outlines the production of the elements of the drama in the figure of comic parabasis. In the drama the characters appear as products of a producing; “the self, appearing here in its significance as something actual, plays with the mask which it once put on in order to act its part; but it as quickly breaks out again from this illusory character and stands forth in its own nakedness and ordinariness …” (PhG 542; M 430). In that the single moments of the drama are experiencible as products of a producing, of an activity, they are divided in themselves: into an artistic and an “ordinary” side. The activity which produces the elements draws a limit between the artwork and reality. Insofar as the external limit of the artwork comes to the fore as the product of its own activity, the limit becomes a determination interior to the artwork. In its performative self-reflection, the limits of the artwork do not dissolve themselves, but they shift and are no longer as securely fixed.


The first and second sections of this essay have shown that Hegel analyzes, under the rubric of “drama,” an art form which dissolves the highest determination of art as ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schöne] reconciliation. The third and fourth sections of this essay have shown that Hegel describes this dissolution in two different ways: through an experience of a plurality which can no longer be integrated into an ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] form, and through a performance experience which reflexively dissolves the (art) product into the producing.11 Ethical and aesthetic determinations are connected to one another in both dimensions of the dramatic dissolution of the ethical-beautiful [Sittlich-Schönen]. In this way the dramatic dissolution is similar to that which it dissolves. This binding of the ethical and the aesthetic takes on different forms for both experiences. The plurality puts into question the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation's power to integrate; thus, this plurality is at first the object of an ethical experience. Because, however, the powerlessness of the beautiful shows itself therein, this ethical experience has aesthetic effects: there is no beautiful form which can reconcile the dramatically experienced plurality. In contrast, the putting into question of the objectivity of the beautiful takes place through its performance, not in an ethical, but in an aesthetic, namely, a poetic, experience: through the experience of the performative or producing character of the drama. Just as the experience of plurality, which is at first understood ethically, turns out to have aesthetic consequences, so Hegel draws ethical consequences from the experience of performance, which is at first understood poetically. Accordingly, the ethical dissolution of the ethical [sittlichen] reconciliation corresponds to the poetic dissolution of the beautiful in drama. The experience of poetic performance corresponds to the ethical experience of a freedom which has freed itself from the limits of the ethical [sittlichen] reconciliation. The drama as dissolution of the beautiful is the art of a post-ethical [nachsittlichen] subjectivity. It is an art—as Hegel says in abbreviated manner—of “subjective” freedom.

Once again two steps can be distinguished in Hegel's discussion of this process from dramatic art to subjective freedom. The first step leads from art to the subject—but to a still poetic subjectivity. Hegel describes the “producing,” which according to Schlegel's formulation is presented “along with the product” as the “activity” of its bringing forth. Hegel understands this activity as one of agents. And that holds for both aspects of the poetic bringing forth: the unity of the artwork and the elements. The bringing forth of unity is the activity of the dramatic poet—to be distinguished from the epic singer—and the bringing forth of the elements is the activity of the actors—to be distinguished from the tragic chorus. “Poetic,” like “actor,” is the designation of a poetic function, defined through the performance of the artwork. They designate therefore at the same time perspectives which the spectators must take in the experience of the artwork.

However, Hegel does not merely ascribe the bringing forth of the drama to the activity of poetic subjectivity. Rather, he interprets the dramatic “speech,” according to the formula cited above, as the subjects' “own” speech—not the speech of poetic but of actual subjects (PhG 535; M 444). It is the subject itself, as it is for-itself, which speaks in drama: in drama the subject comes into its own. Therefore Hegel reformulates the performative reflexivity of the drama as the ethical reflexivity of a subject which has freed itself from the chains of an ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation with the common substance: as “the individuality that has withdrawn into itself, the absolute levity of the ethical [sittlichen] Spirit which has dissolved within itself all the firmly established distinctions of its stable existence and the spheres of its organically ordered world and, being perfectly sure of itself, has attained to unrestrained joyfulness and the freest enjoyment of itself” (PhG 513; M 425f.). The consequence of poetic performance is ethical emancipation. Drama is the form through which subjective freedom comes to light: “this form [of drama] is the night in which the substance [of ethicity] was betrayed …” (PhG 514; M 426). Insofar as the drama reflects itself as something made, the subject reflects itself as maker, no longer as a member of, but as “master” of, ethicity [Sittlichkeit] (PhG 515; M 427).


In both the steps sketched above, Hegel describes the relation between the aesthetic and the ethical pole as the history of an experience, indeed as an education [Bildung]. This history begins in the no-longer-beautiful art of drama and the experience of its performance, proceeds from there to the double form of the poetic subjectivity in the roles of poet and actor, and ends in the post-ethical [nach-sittlichen] freedom of a self-conscious subject. It is a process of experience which Hegel sees leading in two steps from drama to ethical subject. In Hegel's aesthetic reflections this process of experience takes a peculiarly ambivalent form. Its reconstruction can be so understood that it tells the history of a reading, that is to say, the history of the effect [Wirkung] of a specific work; the consequences which Hegel draws from tragic irony and comic parabasis in the chapter on ethicity [Sittlichkeit] in the Phenomenology of Spirit can be understood in this way.12 At the same time, however, Hegel believes that he can assert such a relation between drama and subject, poetic performance and ethical freedom, only if it can be understood not merely as the experiential history of a reading—an effect-history [Wirkungsgeschichte],13 but as the world history of consciousness or of spirit. In this second version Hegel understands the process from drama to ethical subject as a universal process of education, which has led from art as an early form of spirit to its later form, in which the freedom of the subject finds its complete and adequate reality. According to the history of consciousness version, a teleology rules the process which leads from the no-longer-beautiful drama to the post-ethical [nachsittlichen] subjectivity and freedom: it is a process which sublates the drama and, with it, art, in a higher form of spirit.

Art is surpassed in both versions of the process from the drama to subjective freedom, in the effect-history as well as the world historical version. In both versions, indeed, the process of experience is not set in motion without art, but in both versions the process goes beyond art. Each time, the experience of art takes the peculiarly intermediate position which Hegel assigned it in Phenomenology of Spirit. The subjective quality of bringing forth is essential to the artwork—this characterizes the performance of the no-longer-beautiful artwork. “Just as it is essential for the statue to be the work of human hands, so is the actor essential to his mask—not as external condition from which artistically considered [Kunstbetrachtung] we must abstract …” (PhG 535; M 444). At the same time, however, according to Hegel's insight: “we do have to make abstraction from it [i.e., subjective activity—C. M.]”; and when that is so, “we admit just this, that Art does not yet contain in it the true and proper self” (ibid.). In the process of experience, the contemplation of no-longer-beautiful art takes an intermediate position, because it allows the subjective activity to come to the fore, though not yet as the ethical subject's “own” activity. This corresponds to the above-named difference between both steps in which Hegel relates the poetic performance of drama to the ethical freedom of the subject (section 5). The contemplation of art completes the first step, but not the second: the consideration of art understands the drama's bringing forth as the activity of poet and actor—but it does not understand the activity as the ethical subject's “own.” The contemplation of art thus discloses activity and subjectivity in drama. But this activity and this subjectivity are not (yet) “true, genuine,” that is to say, they are not ethical, but aesthetic in nature: the poetic activity of a poetic subject. Therefore the contemplation of art must be surpassed in the process of experience which leads from the aesthetic to the ethical.

This intermediate position of the observation of art holds for both versions of the process of experience which I have distinguished above: the effect-history and the world history. At the same time, however, both versions interpret this intermediate position in entirely different manners. In the world-historical version this intermediacy is considered a deficiency of art. “Contemplation of art” remains at the level of poetic subjectivity because art itself “does not yet contain” the “true, genuine” subjectivity. That art does not yet contain the true, genuine subjectivity can only be determined by an interpretation that looks back at art from a position after art. Such a retrospective gaze interprets the poetic activity and poetic subjectivity as the mere predecessor [Vorschein] of the true, genuine subject. Such an interpretation, which surpasses the hesitant and ambivalent contemplation of art, therefore, surpasses art as well. The gaze in which art and its contemplation thus appear is the gaze of philosophy: the philosophical interpretation of art discloses, in the performative self-reflection of art, the still insufficient expression of ethical freedom. With this discovery in art, philosophy surpasses art. If ethical freedom is “not yet contained,” and yet already indicated, in the poetic performance, then art is the deficient expression of a content better presented by philosophy.

In Hegel the thesis of the deficiency of art is bound to the world historical version of the process of experience from drama to freedom. It is only within the context of this world-historical version that Hegel's thesis of the end of art can be adequately understood. That “art is a thing of the past for us” refers not only—as De Man understands it—to classical fine art. Rather, it refers as well to the dissolution of the beautiful reconciliation, which completes itself in drama, and hence in art. This dissolution, this “highest determination” of no-longer-beautiful art is also “something past for us.” This dramatic dissolution of beautiful art is only the deficient predecessor [Vorschein] of freedom and subjectivity which can be more adequately expressed after art, namely, in philosophy. Accordingly, art comes to its end with the arrival of post-ethical [nachsittliche] freedom and subjectivity.

Therefore, in its radicalized version, Hegel's thesis of the end of art refers not only to the classical and beautiful but also to the dramatic, dissolving art. This means however that Hegel's thesis cannot be so easily claimed by a reading which aims at its potential for dissolution—as does De Man's. Rather, Hegel's thesis of the end of art confronts such a reading with a question, which De Man's Hegel essay scarcely answers. The question is whether the dissolution of the beautiful, for structural reasons, must take place in and as art. Hegel answers this question univocally: the potential for dissolution, which the dramatic art mobilizes against classical beauty, is only the deficient predecessor of a genuine, ethical freedom. That the dissolution of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation takes place in art is, from the standpoint of ethical freedom, a “thing of the past.”

It is this sublation of the dramatic dissolution in post-ethical [nach-sittlichen] freedom which Hegel maintains in his world history of spirit from art to philosophy. One reason for this is that Hegel believed he needed a universal grounding for the process from drama to freedom (a process, the course of which Hegel's interpretations of drama repeatedly follow). In other words, Hegel believed he needed to imbed the effect-history within world history. However, in conclusion, I would like to suggest how this process, the effect-history, can be detached from the world-historical process, and can thus avoid the thesis of the end and sublation of (dramatic) art. While Hegel's world-historical model thinks the ethical consequence of art as its sublation, the effect-history determines the ethical consequence as art's effect [Auswirkung]. This difference is due to the fact that the effect-history version understands the intermediate position of the contemplation of art in the process from drama to the subject otherwise. That art and its contemplation do “not yet” contain the true, genuine, that is to say, the ethical subject, means simply that art brings it forth through itself, along with itself. The intermediate position of art does not mark the deficiency of art with regard to the ethical result of the process of experience, rather it marks the difference of art.

What is decisive is not only that the effect-history version interprets the intermediate position of art otherwise, but also how it comes to this interpretation. The opposition between the deficiency and the difference of art concerns how dramatic performance relates to the bringing forth of a post-ethical [nachsittlichen] freedom of the subject: in brief, how the aesthetic and ethical aspects relate to one another in the dissolution of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation. Hegel maintains that a process of experience leads from the aesthetic to the ethical. In that the world historical version interprets this process as teleological sublation, this version also allows the aesthetic dissolution to be fully absorbed into the ethical dissolution. Herewith Hegel's world-historical version obscures a central aspect of Hegel's own analysis of the dissolution of the ethical-beautiful [Sittlich-Schönen]. Until now I have only sketched this dramatic dissolution as regards the reconciliation in the ethical [Sittlichen] and in the beautiful, respectively. These two reconciliations determine one another reciprocally: the ethical [sittliche] reconciliation has its ideal form in the beautiful, and the beautiful has its real content in the ethical [Sittlichen]. The ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schöne] reconciliation completes the reconciliation in the ethical [Sittlichen] and in the beautiful therefore only in such a way that it is at once reconciliation of the ethical, as ethical [Sittlichen], with the aesthetic, as beautiful. That has consequences as well for the dissolution(s) of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation: the dissolution, each time, in the ethical [Sittlichen] and in the beautiful, also means the dissolution of the reconciliation of the ethical with the aesthetic; the dissolution of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] reconciliation also dissolves the reconciliation of the aesthetic and the ethical. The dissolution of the ethical-beautiful [sittlich-schönen] is not only a division of its reconciliations, but a division within itself.

If this description is accurate, then the process of experience which leads from the aesthetic (the experience of poetic performance) to the ethical (the freedom of the post-ethical [nachsittlicher] subject), can no longer be understood as a sublation of the deficiency of art. Such a process must be understood as the effect-history: as the ethical effects of the poetic experience of performance. I cannot elaborate here how these effects, and, above all, how this effecting, are to be understood outside of a consciousness-history model of sublation. In closing, however, I would like to point out how they are not to be understood. The question, what ethical effects does art have, is not—as Danto concludes from his critical examination of aesthetic philosophy from Plato to Dickie—a “philosophically” uninteresting question and therefore simply an “empirical question.”14 The status and the analysis of the ethical effects of art cannot be grasped in this alternative between “philosophical” (in the sense of conceptual) and “empirical.” These effects are neither logical consequences nor contingent events. Between art and its effects there exists, rather, a relation of the type which Hegel's program of a phenomenology is directed at illuminating: a relation of reflexive experience.


  1. The following remarks are taken from a longer study, which will appear in spring 1996 under the title Tragödie im Sittlichen. Hegel und die Freiheit der Moderne (Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp).

  2. G. W. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik, vol. 1, in Werke, ed. E. Moldenhauer and K. M. Michel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969-1970) 25. Hereafter cited in the text with the abbreviation Ä, followed by volume number and page number. Aesthetics, Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) 11. Hereafter cited in the text with the abbreviation K, followed by the page number. I have in some instances modified Knox's translation to make it more consistent with Menke's language. [Trans.]

  3. Paul De Man, “Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics,” in Critical Inquiry, 8 (Summer 1982): 761-75, 773.

  4. Both “sittlich” and “ethisch” are translated by “ethical,” this unfortunately elides the difference between them. Where “ethical” translates “sittlich,” the German word appears in brackets after it; the word “ethical” standing by itself translates the word “ethisch.” [Trans.]

  5. G. W. F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, in Werke, op. cit., vol. 3, 512. Hereafter cited in the text as PhG [Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 424. Hereafter cited in the text as M. Translation in some instances modified to be more consistent with Menke's language.]

  6. Concerning this threefold harmony of the “subjective,” “political,” and “objective” (i.e., beautiful) work of art, see Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte (in Werke, op. cit.) vol. 12, 295 ff. [The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 241 ff.]

  7. The genre-theoretical delimitation of drama (especially tragedy) from epic is central to both levels of Hegel's determination. In this essay, my understanding of this delimitation rests primarily on two studies, which stand in a critical relationship to Hegel: Benjamin's Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels and H-Th. Lehmann, Theater und Mythos. Die Konstitution des Subjekts des Diskurs der antiken Tragödie (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1991).

  8. See G. Rohrmoser, “Zum Problem der ästhetischen Versöhnung. Schiller und Hegel,” in: Euphorion, vol. 53 (1954): 351-56. And also O. Marquard, “Kant und die Wende zur Ästhetitik,” in: Aesthetica und Anaesthetica (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1989), 21-34; and J. Ritter, “Landschaft. Zur Funktion des Ästhetischen in der modernen Gesellschaft,” in Subjektivität (Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1974) 141-63.

  9. See Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, vol. II (in Werke, op. cit., vol. 17) 48.

  10. Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, transl. P. Firchow (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991) 50f.

  11. When one formulates Hegel's theory at this level of generality, it becomes immediately clear that it explodes the boundaries of a genre theory [Gattungspoetik]. Hegel's theory of dramatic art is a theory of “dramatic” elements [Moments] of an art which is no longer beautiful, because it rests on plurality and performance.

  12. I have developed this more extensively in Tragödie im Sittlichen, chapters three and four.

  13. Throughout the following pages, I have translated Wirkungsgeschichte as “effect-history.” This admittedly approximative translation should at least retain the contrast between world history and the effects or experience of a work of art. [Trans.]

  14. Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986) 18.

Philip J. Kain (essay date September 1998)

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SOURCE: Kain, Philip J. “Hegel's Critique of Kantian Practical Reason.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 28, no. 3 (September 1998): 367-412.

[In the following essay, Kain contends that in Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel offers a thorough critique of Kant's ethical thought.]

While many philosophers have found Hegel's critique of Kantian ethics to be interesting in certain respects, overall most tend to find it rather shallow and to think that Hegel either misunderstands Kant's thought or has a rather crude understanding of it. For example, in examining the last two sections of Chapter V of the Phenomenology—‘Reason as Lawgiver’ and ‘Reason as Testing Laws’ (where we get an extended critique of the categorical imperative)—Lauer finds Hegel's treatment to be truncated and inadequate.1 The only trouble, though, is that like most other readers of the Phenomenology, Lauer does not recognize that Hegel had been examining and criticizing Kantian ethics throughout a much greater part of—indeed, more than half of—Chapter V. Once we do understand this, I think we must concede that Hegel's treatment is hardly truncated and that it cannot be described as shallow or inadequate. I will try to show that Hegel demonstrates a rather sophisticated understanding of, and gives a serious and thorough critique of, Kantian practical reason.

A good part of the problem here is due to Hegel's own obscurity. The Phenomenology is filled with veiled allusions to other texts. Lauer thinks we should be slow in concluding just what texts Hegel is actually referring to. He suggests that Hegel may not have been sure himself or that he wanted to refer to an amalgam of positions.2 This point is well taken. Hegel's allusions are not specific and precise. They are general, open, even symbolic—as if they were trying to refer to as much as possible. Thus, I very definitely do not want to imply that Hegel was significantly influenced by and alludes to Kant and not other philosophers. Nor do I want to suggest that by establishing a connection to Kant we will be able to explain everything that is going on in Hegel's text. Nevertheless, I do think that to understand Hegel we simply must begin to understand who and what he is alluding to. I want to try to show that among all the other things that Hegel is doing in Chapter V he is criticizing Kant's ethics and that only when we see this will Hegel's thought start to come into focus, become clear and philosophically interesting, and provide us with a serious critique of Kantian ethical theory.


Hegel wants to claim that Kant's account of morality is inadequate and that to give an adequate account we must move to Sittlichkeit. In the section entitled ‘The Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness Through Its Own Activity,’ Hegel begins to explain his concept of Sittlichkeit. Reason, Hegel claims, is actualized only in a free nation.3 Only there can we find reason objectively realized in the customs, traditions, practices, laws, and institutions of a people. The citizens pursue their purposes, objectify themselves in their institutions, and see themselves in their world. They create a common public life which is the outcome of the activity of the individual citizens, yet is objective and substantial—it is a force that develops, sustains, and morally empowers its citizens.4

This common public life first appears in history in the Greek polis. The polis is the construction of its citizens. It exists through their work, recognition, and sacrifice. It establishes a common life that is objectively rooted in social and public institutions; public values, traditions, and laws; a whole philosophy, religion, and art. Citizens are willing to serve and to sacrifice for this objective reality, a reality which then motivates them, becomes their mission and purpose, and forms and empowers them as a people. Moreover, this objective sociocultural world is not other, alien, or heteronomous. The citizens are not unfree. They see themselves in a world they have constructed; they find this world to be their own; and they are at one with it. They find reason in their world and are free.

Sittlichkeit is different from Moralität. Moralität begins with Socrates and reaches its high point in Kant. Moralität is individual, rational, and reflective morality. It is based upon individual autonomy and personal conviction. One must rationally decide what is moral and do it because it is moral—because our rationality tells us that it is the right thing to do. This rational and reflective component is relatively absent in traditional Sittlichkeit, which is best represented, for Hegel, in the Greek polis before the rise of Socratic Moralität. Sittlichkeit is ethical behavior grounded in custom and tradition and developed through habit and imitation in accordance with the laws and practices of the community. Personal reflection and analysis have little to do with traditional Sittlichkeit. Sittlichkeit is ethical life built into one's character, attitudes, and feelings.

Furthermore, Moralität involves an ought. It is morality that ought to be realized. This ought is also absent from Sittlichkeit. For it, morality is not something we merely ought to realize or ought to be. Morality exists—it is. It is already embedded in our customs, traditions, practices, character, attitudes, and feelings. The objective ethical order already exists in, is continuously practiced by, is actualized in, the citizen.

The only sort of morality that Hegel discusses and critiques in the remainder of Chapter V is Moralität—individual, rational, reflective morality with individual subjectivity as the source of moral determination. In Chapter VI, culture will involve Sittlichkeit—ethical life, morality built upon custom, tradition, and habit—the morality of a people with moral content given in their traditions, institutions, and practices, not the abstract and formal Moralität of Kant.

In one sense Sittlichkeit is superior to Moralität. It has a rich content—it is objective, public, and lived. Whereas Moralität is formal and abstract. But in another sense traditional Sittlichkeit is inferior to Moralität. Traditional Sittlichkeit's laws are immediate; they are given as absolutes by tradition, the gods, custom. In contrast to Moralität, the role of subjectivity and reflection is minimal and individual freedom is undeveloped.

What Hegel wants for the modern world is neither traditional Sittlichkeit nor modern Moralität. He wants a synthesis of Sittlichkeit and Moralität, which though at times confusing he also calls Sittlichkeit. This higher Sittlichkeit, which Hegel lays out in detail only in the Philosophy of Right, combines the rational and reflective side of Moralität with the transcendence of the ought characteristic of Sittlichkeit. It is rational reflective morality that actually exists as concretely embedded in the customs, traditions, laws, character, practices, and feelings of a people.5

I hope to show that Hegel's entire treatment of practical reason in Chapter V of the Phenomenology is intended as a critique of Kantian Moralität. To my knowledge this has not been recognized by other commentators. The aim of this critique is to drive us toward Sittlichkeit. Let me try to make the case.


The first consciousness we meet, in the section entitled ‘Pleasure and Necessity,’ is a hedonistic consciousness. It pursues pleasure. ‘It plunges … into life and indulges to the full. … It does not so much make its own happiness as straightway take it and enjoy it. … It takes hold of life much as a ripe fruit is plucked, which readily offers itself to the hand that takes it.’6 What, one might ask, has this to do with Kantian ethics? Hegel will not accept the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena nor the existence of an unknown thing-in-itself.7 It follows from this, then, that we are not going to be easily able to maintain a neat Kantian distinction between a pure autonomous reason, on the one hand, and, on the other, pathological inclinations, interests, or desires. Hegel starts with pleasure because he is not about to let Kant banish it from the pure realm of reason and morality into some pathological and heteronomous outside.8

It cannot be denied that Kant at times does present a rather crude picture of duty and inclination as if they were necessarily opposed and such that moral action must be done, as he says in the Foundations, ‘only from duty and without any inclination …’9 But it is not only such views that Hegel is attacking. Hegel is well aware that Kant's considered view is not that duty and inclination are mutually exclusive and need be opposed. He is quite well aware that for Kant the perfect agreement of duty and inclination is an ‘ideal of holiness … which we should strive to approach … in an uninterrupted infinite progress’ and that such holiness is even ‘the supreme condition of the highest good.’10 Indeed, Hegel will discuss this very ideal at length not only in ‘The Moral View of the World’ at the end of Chapter VI, but as I shall argue shortly also in the section that immediately follows ‘Pleasure and Necessity,’ namely, in ‘The Law of the Heart.’ At any rate, Hegel does not find acceptable even Kant's considered view. Kant's considered view is that a moral act need not be free of inclination—perhaps it is even the case that it can never be—but still it must not be determined by inclination. Even when duty and inclination accord, the act must be done from duty, not from inclination.11 In Hegel's view, Kant does not give enough place to inclination. A general theme of the whole remainder of Chapter V, I shall argue, is that inclination, interest, love, or desire are far more able to produce morality, and that Kantian practical reason is far less able to produce morality, than Kant thinks is the case.

Thus, it seems to me that Lauer radically misunderstands ‘Pleasure and Necessity’ in taking it to be a traditional attack on pleasure as self-defeating.12 It is not that at all, but the very opposite—a defense. Hegel alludes to the Faust story and claims that the pleasure-seeking of this consciousness does not want to destroy the other, but only its otherness.13 In other words, Hegel is talking about love. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel says,

Love means in general terms the consciousness of my unity with another, so that I am not in selfish isolation but win my self-consciousness only as the renunciation of my independence and through knowing myself as the unity of myself with another and of the other with me. … The first moment in love is that I do not wish to be a self-subsistent and independent person and that, if I were, then I would feel defective and incomplete. The second moment is that I find myself in another person, that I count for something in the other, while the other in turn comes to count for something in me … love is unity of an ethical type.14

In ‘Pleasure and Necessity,’ Hegel contrasts the ethical unity involved in love to whatever it is that makes individuals separate. In a very obscure passage, he says, ‘But here this element which gives to both a separate actuality is rather the category, a being which is essentially in the form of thought. It is therefore the consciousness of independence—let it be natural consciousness, or consciousness developed into a system of laws—which preserves the individuals each for himself.’15 If this passage is not intended to refer explicitly to the Kantian categorical imperative, it is at least the case that the categorical imperative is one example of what Hegel is talking about. Kantian practical reason certainly grounds the separateness and independence of the individual. It roots the individual in a transcendental sphere apart and makes the individual the source of all law—even a system of laws. Each individual is taken to be a supreme lawgiver out of which can arise a kingdom of ends. Kant says,

By a “kingdom” I understand the union of different rational beings in a system by common laws. Now since it is by laws that ends are determined as regards their universal validity, hence, if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings, and likewise from all the content of their private ends, we shall be able to conceive all ends combined in a systematic whole …16

For Kant, to achieve the universal, to produce a kingdom of ends, to live in ethical unity with others under a system of laws, we must abstract from the personal interests and private ends of human beings; we must withdraw into the individuality and apartness of practical reason. Are we really going to find unity with others in this way? We would seem to be moving away from unity toward the separate, individual, and isolated.

Hegel is suggesting that Kantian practical reason is less likely to be successful in producing the ethical union it seeks and more likely to produce separateness and isolation than is love, which indeed has already achieved, Hegel says, the ‘unity of itself and the other self-consciousness’—it has already achieved the universal.17 Love's unity with the other self-consciousness is certainly a movement away from individual isolation toward the universal, and if love expands, pushes toward an even larger unity with others in a kingdom of ends (as we shall see that it does in ‘The Law of the Heart’), it will move further toward the universal. What Hegel is trying to suggest here is that there is good reason to think that love might tend more effectively toward unity, the overcoming of separateness, the universal, the moral, than does Kantian practical reason.

When Kant discusses love in the Foundations, the Critique of Practical Reason, and the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, he insists that love as an inclination cannot be commanded as a duty. We cannot have a duty to do something gladly. Thus, for example, when Scripture commands us to love our neighbor or our enemy, in Kant's view it cannot mean to command love as an inclination, but simply beneficence from duty—not pathological love, but practical love.18

It is quite clear to any sensible reader, however, that the ideal of the Gospels is not beneficence from duty, but precisely love as an inclination. In the Spirit of Christianity, Hegel attacks Kant's distortion of the Gospels and his reduction of love to moral duty.19 In love, for Hegel, all thought of duty vanishes. Love is higher than law and makes obedience to law superfluous. Inclination is unified with the law and love fulfills the law in such a way that law is annulled as law. Love transcends all cleavage between duty and inclination.20

Hegel goes on to argue that love so transcends the law that the Gospels even suggest that we do not want to be conscious of any action as a duty because that would mean the ‘intrusion of something alien, resulting in the impurity of the action …’21 It is not, as for Kant, inclination that introduces impurity.22 Duty introduces the impurity. A charitable action done out of love could be spoiled if one started to think of it as a duty. But Hegel goes even further than this. Since duty and inclination have been unified and all opposition overcome, he says, the law can ‘be taken up (aufgenommen) into love.’23 Very interestingly, this can be seen as exactly the reverse of what Allison calls Kant's incorporation thesis. In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant writes,

freedom of the will (Willkür) is of a wholly unique nature in that an incentive can determine the will (Willkür) to an action only so far as the individual has incorporated (aufgenommen) it into his maxim (has made it the general rule in accordance with which he will conduct himself); only thus can an incentive, whatever it may be, co-exist with the absolute spontaneity of the will (Willkür) (i.e., freedom).24

Thus, for Kant, love may determine our will in a moral act, but only insofar as it is incorporated into a maxim, that is, only insofar as it becomes beneficence from duty or practical love. Whereas Hegel's view seems to be that in the ideal case duty could determine our will but only insofar as it had been taken up into love.

I find Hegel's view much more acceptable than Kant's, but, whatever one decides on this issue, it is quite clear that Hegel is not, as Ameriks and Allison seem to suggest he is, merely attacking a crudely understood notion of the opposition of duty to inclination.25 Hegel is taking on Kant's subtlest and most considered views and attempting to show that, even so, duty involves an abstract and alien distance that falls short of the ethical union achievable by love.

Nevertheless, I definitely do not want to suggest that in the Phenomenology Hegel is simply holding, as he may have been at moments in the Spirit of Christianity, that love is moral and that Kantian practical reason is not. Hegel goes on to recognize (again with Faust, Faust's love for Gretchen, and her death in mind) that the life of pleasure is a life of necessity, fate, destiny—even of death and destruction. Here Hegel might seem to have fallen back into the crude view that inclination and desire are simply opposed to the moral—and are heteronomous, determined, part of a realm of causal necessity, and so forth.

But Hegel is much more careful than this. We must attend more closely to the way in which he understands fate. He says, ‘necessity, fate, and the like, is just that about which we cannot say what it does, what its specific laws and positive content are, because it is … a relation that is simple and empty, but also irresistible and imperturbable, whose work is merely the nothingness of individuality.’26 Fate is not to be identified with ordinary causal determinism. Fate is more like chance. It is certainly nothing that a scientist can predict ahead of time—because we cannot say what the laws are. Yet a life at the mercy of chance can certainly be experienced as a cruel fate. Chance is not at all like the regular and predictable causal determinism to be expected in the Kantian realm of phenomenal appearance, yet, Hegel is suggesting, the total absence of predictability and control is just as much, or more, a necessity, a fate, a heteronomy.

If this is conceded, then it will be very interesting to notice that while Kant usually holds that freedom has its own laws, at least in some places he explains freedom as independence from the laws of nature, liberation from all compulsion, the absence of all rules.27 For Hegel, I suggest, freedom as absence of law (perhaps even—Hegel will suggest as we proceed—freedom that is unable to give us its laws) can be seen as fate. We cannot say what it does—it is blind, imperturbable, and irresistible. To be cut off from the world is very likely to end up at the mercy of the world. In Hegel's view, to the extent that the Kantian transcendental self is separate from the concrete causal world, to the extent that it is cut off from the empirical, it risks subjecting itself to the mercy of fate—or at least seriously contributes to this. Fate occurs because we turn away from the world, leave it to itself, to chance, and thus end up at the mercy of chance, which appears as an uncontrollable necessity. If this is so, it spells disaster for Kant. Fate, though it arises from freedom, subverts freedom. If you are subject to fate you are not self-determined. If the self has a destiny, if it is at the mercy of fate, if it is the plaything of chance, the self becomes alien to itself. Heteronomy would emerge within the autonomous self.

Fate can be compared to history. History is very central to Hegel's concept of Sittlichkeit. The sociocultural realm is the historical product of human activity, a product that in turn transforms and develops human beings themselves, a realm which they can come to understand and in which they can come to be at home and thus free. Sittlichkeit is first beginning to emerge here in Chapter V of the Phenomenology, and fate is the first, simplest, thinnest view of history. We have nothing but purely individual consciousnesses, their drives, passions, desires, and the clashes between them—all understood as something completely uncontrolled, ununderstood, mere chaos, mere chance. Such a view of history emerges because we view the world only from the inadequate perspective of individual consciousness and are unable to see how consciousness can understand let alone produce or control its historical world—it merely suffers it. Two sections further on in the Phenomenology, in ‘Virtue and the Way of the World,’ we will already have moved, I shall argue, to a more complex view of history, the view Kant spells out in his ‘Idea for a Universal History,’ where fate will turn into providence. In other words, history will appear rationally directed. To speak of fate is to say there is no rationality—no order, direction, or control—involved.


In the next section of Chapter V, ‘The Law of the Heart and the Frenzy of Self-Conceit,’ we move from Goethe's Faust to his Werther, and we get a more complicated moral consciousness that still seeks pleasure, but not merely its own. Its pleasure is to bring pleasure to all hearts. As in ‘Pleasure and Necessity,’ love rather effectively tends toward the universal and it is also the case that it is inclined to do so. The Law of the Heart, then, seeks to promote the welfare of all humanity as a universal end and it takes pleasure in doing so. There is a lawlike attitude here.28 This consciousness acts upon a Kantian categorical imperative. Or, as Hegel puts it, this heart ‘has within it a law …’29 In other words, it takes up or incorporates the law: what this heart ‘realizes is itself the law, and its pleasure is therefore at the same time the universal pleasure of all hearts. To it the two are undivided; its pleasure is what conforms to the law, and the realization of the law of universal humanity procures for it its own particular pleasure.’30 Compare this to Kant, who in the Foundations says,

To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, for example, the inclination to honor, which … deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem.31

Acting from inclination has no true moral worth. But, on the other hand, acting from duty and being inclined to do so is an ideal of holiness. Kant says, ‘to love one's neighbor means to like to practice all duties toward him. The command which makes this a rule cannot require that we have this disposition but only that we endeavor after it.’32 The perfect agreement of duty and inclination is an

ideal of holiness … unattainable by any creature … yet an archetype which we should strive to approach … in an uninterrupted infinite progress. If a rational creature could ever reach the stage of thoroughly liking to do all moral laws, it would mean that there was no possibility of there being in him a desire which could tempt him to deviate from them … To such a level of moral disposition no creature can ever attain.33

Such holiness is ‘the supreme condition of the highest good.’34 The highest good, for Kant, sets as its ideal a perfect agreement between the moral law and inclination—in other words, it is a law of the heart. And since the satisfaction of our inclinations would amount to happiness, the highest good also requires the reconciliation of virtue and happiness. If happiness did not accompany virtue, we certainly would not have the highest good for human beings. But virtue and happiness would seem to be irreconcilable. Happiness requires the regular satisfaction of our inclinations, interests, and desires. But to be virtuous, we certainly cannot be determined by inclination, interest, or desire. We must be determined by the moral law. And there is no reason to think that virtue will produce happiness. If we lived solely in a phenomenal world, Kant thinks, there would be no reason to expect virtue and happiness to accord. Only if there is also an intelligible world can we imagine such reconciliation as an ideal, and only, Kant thinks, if we postulate a God who will see to it that nature is ordered such that while we act virtuously our desires will at the same time be satisfied so that we can also be happy, and happy in proportion to our worthiness to be happy, that is, in proportion to our virtue.35

What we have here then, Hegel insists, and Kant fully admits, is an ideal. Inclination ideally ought to agree with the moral law—but this is not something actually achieved.36 Hegel says that the law is still separated from the heart and exists on its own such that most of humanity, while accepting the law, will not actually find it in unity with the heart and so will have to dispense with actual enjoyment in obeying it. Thus the law will start to become for the heart a mere show that will not seem to deserve the authority and reality it is supposed to have.37 Hegel's point in all of this, I believe, is that we have not transcended all cleavage between objective law and subjective feeling so as to annual the law as law—we have not achieved Sittlichkeit. We merely have a Kantian ideal of unity between law and inclination. And this ideal, Hegel wants to go on to argue, is not likely to work in actual cases.

From the start, the law of the heart has hated and opposed any imposition from outside (by authorities, the government, whatever) of laws that offend the heart. All law must agree with the heart—that is the only acceptable law. Kant would at least seem to be in agreement with this. In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, he claims that we have a practical knowledge that rests ‘solely upon reason and … lies as close to every man, even the most simple, as though it were engraved upon his heart—a law, which we need but name to find ourselves at once in agreement with everyone else regarding its authority, and which carries with it in everyone's consciousness unconditioned binding force, to wit, the law of morality.’38 Where does this law—capable of producing such complete agreement as if engraved upon our very hearts—come from? In the Foundations, the third formulation of the categorical imperative tells us that each rational being is a supreme legislator, ‘subject only to his own, yet universal, legislation, and … only bound to act in accordance with his own will, which is, however, designed by nature to be a will giving universal laws.’39

Kant sees no trouble at all in claiming that we are subject to no law but our own, yet that we can legislate for all. Lacking Sittlichkeit, Hegel thinks there will be a great deal of trouble to be found here. In the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Kant does admit that there is a distinction we must notice. In ethics the ‘law is conceived as the law of one's own will and not of the will in general, which could also be the will of others; in the latter case such a law would give rise to a juridical duty …’40 This seems to suggest that while a law one gives oneself can be one's own, others might not take it as their own. Indeed, Kant says that I can ‘be forced by others to actions which are directed as means to an end, but I can never be forced by others to have an end; I alone can make something an end for myself … for I can have no end except of my own making.’41 Thus, while it is my duty, for Kant, to promote the happiness of others as my end,42 it does not seem that this could cause others to accept it as their end. In fact, in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, it seems to be the case that in an ethical commonwealth not only will it be the case that others will not accept my legislation as their own but that even:

the people, as a people, cannot itself be regarded as the law-giver. For in such a commonwealth all the laws are expressly designed to promote the morality of actions (which is something inner, and hence cannot be subject to public human laws), whereas, in contrast, these public laws—and this would go to constitute a juridical commonwealth—are directed only toward the legality of actions, which meets the eye, and not towards (inner) morality …43

However, it would seem that Kant wants it both ways. The state cannot force disposition to virtue, yet it seems to count on it,

it would be a contradiction … for the political commonwealth to compel its citizens to enter into an ethical commonwealth, since the very concept of the latter involves freedom from coercion. Every political commonwealth may indeed wish to be possessed of a sovereignty, according to laws of virtue, over the spirits [of its citizens]; for then, when its methods of compulsion do not avail … their dispositions to virtue would bring about what was required. But woe to the legislator who wishes to establish through force a polity directed to ethical ends! For in so doing he would not merely achieve the very opposite of an ethical polity but also undermine his political state and make it insecure.44

The legislator wants everyone to take the legislator's law as their own, be disposed toward it, take it as a law of their heart, but woe to the legislator who tries to legislate such a law of the heart. We are certainly not very far along here toward the ideal of agreement between duty and inclination, virtue and happiness, the law and the heart. And so, as Hegel puts it, what will happen is that others will not find the law to be ‘the fulfillment of the law of their hearts, but rather that of someone else; and, precisely in accordance with the universal law that each shall find in what is law his own heart, they turn against the reality he set up, just as he turned against theirs. Thus, just as the individual at first finds only the rigid law, now he finds the hearts of men themselves, opposed to his excellent intentions and detestable.’45 Others cannot recognize themselves in the law of my heart. If my legislation were to stand as a universal ordinance, others would find it merely my imposition and would turn against it as the very law of the heart demands.46

What Hegel is suggesting here, and it is something he will further develop in the section entitled ‘The Spiritual Animal Kingdom,’ is that Kant was quite correct in the view that the law must come from your own reason—though Kant was not fully aware of what this actually implied. It is not enough that laws just be rational. They must be your own. Human beings are very much motivated by what is their own—their desire to express themselves and recognize their own doing in the result. And if forced to chose between what is rational or universal and what is their own they will find such a situation oppressive. Lauer argues that the trouble with the law of the heart is that it does not act on the categorical imperative.47 That is seriously mistaken. The law of the heart does involve a categorical imperative and that is precisely what is wrong with it. Hegel is attacking the categorical imperative.

But the worst is yet to come. Hegel thinks that Kantian morality will always result in an alien situation, one that always establishes a law that is not your own—even if you yourself instituted the law. In the Spirit of Christianity, Hegel said, the ‘consciousness of having performed his duty enables the individual to claim universality for himself; he intuits himself as universal, as raised above himself qua particular and above the whole sphere of particularity, i.e., above the mass of individuals … and this self-consciousness of his is as foreign to the action as men's applause.’48 In the ‘Law of the Heart,’ Hegel says that in carrying out

the law of his heart … the law has in fact escaped the individual; it directly becomes merely the relation which was supposed to be got rid of. The law of the heart, through its very realization, ceases to be a law of the heart. For in its realization it … is now a universal power for which this particular heart is a matter of indifference, so that the individual, by setting up his own ordinance, no longer finds it to be his own. Consequently, what the individual brings into being through the realization of his law, is not his law … but actually is for him an alien affair … a superior power which is [not] only alien to him, but one which is hostile.49

After all, if the legislation of public law, as we have seen Kant himself say in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, cannot be taken to demand anything inner, if the legislator cannot expect to legislate disposition to virtue (without undermining the political state and making it insecure), then what difference does it make who the legislator is—you yourself or someone else? As soon as a public law is established that must keep its distance in this way from the inner, from disposition, from your own, from the heart, such a law (Hegel is perfectly correct in claiming) will escape the individual and become an alien power—even for the very individual who established the law.

The problem here is that we do not have Sittlichkeit. We have instead a modern separation of universal law and the heart—a separation perfectly expressed in Kantian ethics. Moreover, Kantian ethics simply would not accept Sittlichkeit. The Kantian individual would certainly find the ‘divine and human ordinance[s]’ of the ancient world, which were taken ‘as an accepted authority’, to be instead, as Hegel puts it, ‘a dead authority in which not only its own self … but also those subject to that ordinance would have no consciousness of themselves … ‘In short, Kantian ethics would find the objective laws of the ancient world to be an alien authority—it would find them to be heteronomous. It would see nothing of itself, its own, in those laws. Custom and tradition, laws based on religion or mythology, for Kant, could not be forms of rational autonomy. They would be other, heteronomous, alien. What this completely misses, in Hegel's view, is that ancient law was ‘really animated by the consciousness of all’, it was in fact ‘the law of every heart … for this means nothing else than that individuality becomes an object to itself in the form of universality in which, however, it does not recognize itself.’50 The divine and human laws of the ancient world, for Hegel, were constituted by the cultural and historical action of the citizens themselves and embedded in their customs, traditions, practices, and feelings—they were their own laws. They had an objective and universal form such that citizens did not see that they had constituted them, but they were the law of every heart. The universal and feelings were not separate here. Their unity was not a mere ideal; their unity was actual.51 As Hegel put it in an earlier text,

As free men the Greeks and Romans obeyed laws laid down by themselves, obeyed men whom they had themselves appointed to office, waged wars on which they had themselves decided, gave their property, exhausted their passions, and sacrificed their lives by thousands for an end which was their own. They neither learned nor taught [a moral system] but evinced by their actions the moral maxims which they could call their very own. In public as in private and domestic life, every individual was a free man, one who lived by his own laws. The idea (Idee) of his country or of his state was the invisible and higher reality for which he strove, which impelled him to effort; it was the final end of his world or in his eyes the final end of the world, an end which he found manifested in the realities of daily life or which he himself co-operated in manifesting and maintaining. Confronted by this idea, his own individuality vanished; it was only this idea's maintenance, life and persistence he asked for, and these were things which he himself could make realities.52

The cultural and historical construction of institutions and laws will be traced at length in Chapter VI of the Phenomenology—from the ancient world through the French Revolution. And in Chapter VI, the further we move into the modern and Kantian world, the more it will be the case that our laws are not seen as our own. In the ancient world, laws were our own—they were laws of the heart.

The failure of the law of the heart in the modern world leads to the frenzy of self-conceit. You blame the domination that arises from the law of the heart not on yourself—your heart is pure, all you want is the happiness of others. The fact that they do not accept this, the fact that they see it as domination, is not due to you; it is a general perversion of the law of the heart:53

The consciousness which sets up the law of its heart therefore meets with resistance from others, because it contradicts the equally individual laws of their hearts; and these others in their resistance are doing nothing else but setting up and claiming validity for their own law. The universal that we have here is, then, only a universal resistance and struggle of all against one another, in which each claims validity for his own individuality, but at the same time does not succeed in his efforts, because each meets with the same resistance from the others, and is nullified by their reciprocal resistance. What seems to be public order, then, is this universal state of war, in which each wrests what he can for himself, executes justice on the individuality of others and establishes his own, which is equally nullified through the action of the others. It is the “way of the world”, the show of an unchanging course that is only meant to be a universality …54

The ‘Way of the World’ or the ‘Course of the World’—in German, ‘der Weltlauf’—is a term that Hegel finds in Kant.55 Certainly, Hegel's description of the ‘Way of the World’ is intended to refer to an arrangement central to Kant's political philosophy and philosophy of history. Compare the above passage from Hegel to the following passage from Kant's Perpetual Peace,

many say a republic would have to be a nation of angels, because men with their selfish inclinations are not capable of a constitution of such sublime form. But precisely with these inclinations nature comes to the aid of the general will established on reason, which is revered even though impotent in practice. Thus it is only a question of a good organization of the state (which does lie in man's power), whereby the powers of each selfish inclination are so arranged in opposition that one moderates or destroys the ruinous effect of the other. The consequence for reason is the same as if none of them existed, and man is forced to be a good citizen even if not a morally good person.

The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent. The problem is: “Given a multitude of rational beings requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of whom is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.”

A problem like this must be capable of solution; it does not require that we know how to attain the moral improvement of men but only that we should know the mechanism of nature in order to use it on men, organizing the conflict of the hostile intentions present in a people in such a way that they must compel themselves to submit to coercive laws. Thus a state of peace is established in which laws have force. …56

The assumption of the ancient world was always that in a good city the universal and the heart (law and morality, on the one hand, and inclination, interest, custom, tradition, on the other) would agree—Sittlichkeit was the norm. In the modern world, the assumption is the reverse, that the universal and the heart are separate and will diverge, though the heart can be manipulated so as to produce the universal. For Kant, the ideal of holiness is that the universal and the heart, duty and inclination, agree. This ideal is the supreme condition of the highest good—what Hegel calls the law of the heart. But it is only an ideal and all we end up with is the frenzy of self-conceit, the organization of a race of devils into the appearance of a nation of angels, public order that is really a state of war, the reciprocal nullification of conflicting interests appearing as the universal. At any rate, we have already arrived at the next section: ‘Virtue and the Way of the World.’


The law of the heart, then, dissolves merely into virtue. In other words, the consciousness now before us no longer takes pleasure in acting on the universal; it no longer combines inclination and the moral law. It simply does its duty. All we have is ordinary Kantian virtue, and it stands opposed to the way of the world, the conflict of particular interests that it intends to manipulate in order to produce virtuous results. Like Lauer and Hyppolite, many commentators seem to think that ‘Virtue and the Way of the World’ is about Don Quixote.57 I think there is a passing reference to Quixote in one passage,58 but that is not what the section is about. No commentator that I am aware of sees what the section, at least in my opinion, is so very clearly about, namely, Kant's philosophy of history.

In his ‘Idea for a Universal History,’ Kant tells us that there are two forces at work in history. The first is the conflict of particular interests; the second is morality. And both, for Kant, lead to the very same end—peace, justice, and a league of nations.59

Kant thinks that we find two propensities within human beings. He sums these up as ‘unsocial sociability.’ Human beings have an unsocial propensity—a propensity to selfishness and lack of concern for the interests of others. But they also have a social propensity. They must cooperate with others in society to satisfy their needs. These two propensities together—associating with others, yet being selfish and unsocial—produce conflict, competition, and even war. While there is an obvious negative side to this conflict, there is also a positive side. Conflict and selfishness, after all, drive us to accomplish things; competition sharpens our abilities. We are driven toward the development of our powers, capacities, and talents.60

So, for Kant, we are driven to society by sociability and the need for others. Once in society, competition and selfishness set in and our powers and capacities develop. This development, for Kant, will eventually lead to the society of morality, justice, and peace that he is after.61 The notion that conflicting self-interest leads toward what morality demands is quite similar to, and perhaps Kant even gets it from, Adam Smith. In a market economy, each pursues their own self-interest. Nevertheless, for Smith, this self-seeking not only produces a common good, it does so more effectively than if individuals had consciously and cooperatively sought the common good. Aggressive self-seeking, given the interdependence of each upon all, produces a national capital, the wealth of the nation, that common good, out of which each struggles to gain their particular share. Self-seeking produces this common good through an ‘invisible hand’; that is, behind our backs and despite our intentions.62

For Kant, there is also an ‘unsocial sociability’ at the international level. We find the assertion of national self-interest that drives nations toward aggression and war. Yet there is also an important form of sociability among nations, namely, their interest in commerce and trade. It is the dynamic interplay between these factors that will lead to a league of nations, peace, and international law.

As wars become more serious, destructive, and expensive, they become more uncertain. They come into conflict with ever-increasing economic interests—they interfere with trade. As world trade grows, as nations become more interdependent, war poses an ever-greater threat to the smooth functioning of the international market. At the first sign of war, other nations will intervene to arbitrate, to quash the war, in order to secure their own national commercial interests. This is the first step toward a league of nations.63

The second force at work in history is morality. We can easily see that morality, the categorical imperative, would demand fair laws, just constitutions, and an end to wars. We could not will to universalize war, unjust constitutions, and unfair laws. Morality would also demand a league of nations.64 And morality, for Kant, is one of the forces at work in history. Moreover, the other force, we have already seen, drives us toward the very same point that morality does. War among nations and commercial interest drive us toward peace, law, and a league of nations. Both morality and war converge toward the same end.65

In the long passage quoted above from Perpetual Peace, we see a good example of these two forces at work. Kant argues that selfish inclinations must be arranged so that they cancel each other out and thus devils can end up with a society that might have seemed possible only for those with the morality of angels. Both forces are necessary for Kant. One without the other is not enough. Reason and morality alone, he says, would never achieve our end. Humans are too corrupt.66 On the other hand, conflict or war alone will never actually make us moral. Conflict and war drive us toward peace and legality. But this is only to say that our self-interest drives us toward peace and law; and self-interest is not moral for Kant.

If, for Kant, we are able to form an idea for a universal history; if we can see that in history the dynamic tension between war and commerce will lead us unconsciously toward the same point that reason and morality would consciously lead us; then Kant thinks that the second force at work in history, our own reason, our own morality, can begin to guide this historical development toward its goal.67 History can be rationally guided. We can have providence,68 not just fate.

Hegel clearly has Kantian morality and philosophy of history in mind as he plays out the interaction between the two consciousnesses that stand before us: virtue and the way of the world.69 Virtue, he says, is the consciousness that universal law is essential and that individuality—which is to say, inclination and particular interest—must be sacrificed to the universal and thus brought under its discipline and control. Virtue wills to accomplish a good that is not yet actual; it is an ought that must be realized. And it can be realized only through virtue's nullifying of individuality.70 In the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Kant says that the ‘moral capacity of man would not be virtue if it were not actualized by the strength of one's resolution in conflict with powerful opposing inclinations. Virtue is the product of pure practical reason insofar as the latter, in the consciousness of its superiority (through freedom), gains mastery over the inclinations.’71 He also says you must ‘dare to do battle against all the forces of nature within you and round about you, and to conquer them when they come into conflict with your moral principles.’72

For the way of the world, on the other hand, individuality takes itself to be essential—which is to say that it pursues self-interest. It seeks its own inclinations, pleasures, and enjoyment, and in doing so it subordinates the universal to itself. For Kant, as we saw, both morality and the conflict of particular interests converge toward the same universal end. So also, Hegel says, the way of the world, through the conflict of particular interests, achieves the universal—the very same universal that virtue seeks.73 For Kant, it was morality's task to guide the historical conflict of particular interests and to hasten it toward its end. For Hegel too, virtue attempts to assist the way of the world to realize the universal.

At this point, however, Hegel's disagreement with Kant begins to sharpen. Hegel argues that, in fact, virtue's assistance is unnecessary; the way of the world is quite capable of realizing the universal on its own. The Quixotic assistance of the knight of virtue is a sham.74 Virtue wants to bring the good into existence by the sacrifice of individuality or particular interest. But it is individuality, the conflict of particular interests, that actually realizes the universal. Virtue denies the accomplishments of the way of the world and attempts to claim them for itself. Virtue always wants to treat the universal as something that does not yet exist, something that ought to be, something it will bring about, rather than as something which already is. Sittlichkeit is emerging here. Hegel says:

Virtue in the ancient world had its own definite sure meaning, for it had in the spiritual substance of the nation a foundation full of meaning, and for its purpose an actual good already in existence. Consequently, too, it was not directed against the actual world as against something generally perverted, and against a “way of the world”. But the virtue we are considering has its being outside of the spiritual substance, it is an unreal virtue, a virtue in imagination and name only, which lacks that substantial content.75

For Hegel, we must drop the idea that virtue exists only as a principle, an ought, which as yet has no actual existence and which must be brought into existence through the sacrifice of individuality, particular interest, or passion. Hegel's objection to Kantian morality is that it is abstract, outside the world, an ought, and that it believes that only it is capable of realizing the universal.76 It has severed itself from the concrete actual world of interest and passion, and faces it as an other. From this superior position it wants to direct the world. Instead, morality must be rooted in the world.

Or, to put this another way, Kant's philosophy of history and his ethics are written from the perspective of individual consciousness—the perspective that there are only individual consciousnesses. Morality, for Kant, is a matter of individual will abstracted from the concrete actual world. Certainly, for Kant, inclinations, interests, and passions are part of the world and are to be carefully distinguished from the individual moral will if the individual is to be self-determined and thus free. It is this separation that Hegel objects to. It involves the ‘creation of distinctions that are no distinctions …’77 Kant has no notion of Sittlichkeit, which Hegel is trying to push us towards here. Sittlichkeit is morality embedded in a concrete cultural world. For Hegel, virtue and the way of the world, particular interest and the universal, morality and the concrete world, are not separate opposed realities externally related to each other. They are internally related as parts of a single cultural reality that already exists; it is not something that merely ought to be realized.

We must abandon the perspective of individual consciousness and adopt a perspective in which the concrete world and individual consciousness are seen as two parts of one spiritual unity. Individual consciousness is the internalization of the sociocultural world and the sociocultural world is the outcome and expression of the actions of individual consciousnesses. Each develops in interaction with the other, and each transforms the other.

Hegel agrees with the Kantian and Smithian notion that a conflict of particular interests leads to the universal. What Hegel does not accept is that this can be adequately understood at the level of individual consciousness. For it to be correctly understood, we must move to the level of culture. Culture explains how individual interest—the concrete way of the world—is connected to virtue. The interaction among particular interests gives rise to a set of institutions, a world, which develops a spiritual life of its own and which reacts back upon and molds those individual consciousnesses and leads them to virtue. Particular interest and virtue are not two externally related realms eternally distinguished from each other. They are internally related as two interacting parts within a single cultural unity. Each produces and molds the other. Virtue is simply mistaken in thinking itself independent and outside this spiritual reality, superior to it, and thus able to manipulate and guide particular interests from above. Particular interests as they are formed by their cultural world actually take an interest in virtue and virtue is something that properly engages and develops out of our passions, inclinations, and interests. Moreover, there is no ought that is above, outside, independent and that the individual will must set out to realize. Morality already exists as the spiritual unity that encloses us, that is our very being, and that is embedded in our feelings, desires, and interests. Hegel's task is to reconcile us to what is by allowing us to correctly understand what is. His aim is not to transform reality in accordance with an abstract and independent ought. Virtue is not something as yet nonexistent that we ought to realize; it is something already existing that we must come to more deeply recognize and rationally grasp in our actual sociocultural practices. As Hegel puts it in the Philosophy of Right,

After all, the truth about Right, Ethics, and the state is as old as its public recognition and formulation in the law of the land, in the morality of everyday life, and in religion. What more does this truth require—since the thinking mind is not content to possess it in this ready fashion? It requires to be grasped in thought as well; the content which is already rational in principle must win the form of rationality …78

At any rate, Kantian practical reason ends in failure. It thinks it can direct the course of the world, but it turns out that this is self-delusion. The course of the world does better than does virtue.


‘Virtue and the Way of the World,’ then, achieves a universal end brought about by the action of particular interests. What this shows us, Hegel suggests in the next section, entitled ‘The Spiritual Animal Kingdom and Deceit, or the Fact Itself,’79 is that action can only be judged by what it does. Only the action achieved is a reality, not the idea that is supposed to guide the action from above or outside. We cannot determine the reality of the action until it takes place—we cannot see the universal moral result in the particular interests until the conflicting particular interests have actually realized the universal. The reality of any potentiality, capacity, or talent is its realization, not what we hope or desire or intend, but what becomes, what is actually realized in action. The talent of engineers or artists is seen in the bridges they build or the paintings they paint, not merely in their hopes, dreams, or intentions concerning possible bridges or paintings.80

In an earlier section, Hegel discussed physiognomy, the doctrine propounded by Lavater to the effect that the inner character of individuals is expressed outwardly in their bodily form and facial expressions. If we wonder why Hegel spent so much time attacking what to most people is obviously a pseudoscience, part of the answer is that Hegel's attack against physiognomy hits at much more than just physiognomy—it hits at Kant's ethics as well. Physiognomy regards the deed and its performance as inessential and irrelevant. It regards only inner intentions as essential and thinks it can discern these inner truths through, say, facial expressions.81 Physiognomy pushes this way too far. As Hegel puts it, ‘If anyone said, “You certainly act like an honest man, but I see from your face that you are forcing yourself to do so and are a rogue at heart”; without a doubt, every honest fellow to the end of time, when thus addressed, will retort with a box on the ear.’82

But how far from this is Kant, who in the Foundations says, ‘when moral worth is in question, it is not a matter of actions which one sees but of their inner principles which one does not see.’83 How is it, then, that we can be sure of these inner intentions? Well, that is something of a problem even for Kant,

if we attend to our experience of the way men act, we meet frequent and, as we ourselves confess, justified complaints that we cannot cite a single sure example of the disposition to act from pure duty. … It is in fact absolutely impossible by experience to discern with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of an action, however much it may conform to duty, rested solely on moral grounds and on the conception of one's duty. It sometimes happens that in the most searching self-examination we can find nothing except the moral ground of duty which could have been powerful enough to move us to this or that good action and to such great sacrifice. But from this we cannot by any means conclude with certainty that a secret impulse of self-love, falsely appearing as the idea of duty, was not actually the true determining cause of the will … our concern is not whether this or that was done but that reason of itself and independently of all appearances commands what ought to be done. Our concern is with actions of which perhaps the world has never had an example, with actions whose feasibility might be seriously doubted by those who base everything on experience, and yet with actions inexorably commanded by reason.84

This simply will not work. How are we to establish the existence of the sort of intelligible self that could ground such pure intentions, unsullied by self-love, of which the world has perhaps never seen an example, but which are inexorably commanded by reason? If we accepted the existence of a noumenal realm that could keep reason and its pure intentions apart in a beyond where they could be considered an inner essence behind the outer appearance of self-love, we might begin to argue for the existence of such an intelligible self. But Hegel will not concede the existence of such a realm and, indeed, most modern commentators find the very concept to be an embarrassment which they either ignore or avoid. We might instead try to argue that without such an intelligible self and the freedom it implies, we could not understand the possibility of morality.85 But Hegel has just shown us that this is not so. We do not need a virtue to direct the course of the world. The particular interests that make up the course of the world are quite able on their own to realize the universal. Furthermore, by Kant's own admission in the passage just quoted, we cannot even cite a single sure example of an action done from pure duty. How then can we claim to establish that there is or must be an intelligible self, the seat of a reason that of itself and independently of all appearances is able to issue inexorable commands of pure duty?

All we have is a deed, a doing, an action. There is no self residing inside us in a beyond or in a second world or that somehow escapes the supposed heteronomy of the phenomenal world. All we have here, as Hegel puts it, is a distinction that is no distinction—a distinction that is purely nominal.86

For Hegel, there is no way to get a hold of inner intentions—certainly not if that is supposed to allow us to measure or critique or avoid the deed. The deed is not a mere outer expression of an inner intention. The deed is what it is: murder, theft, bravery. It is what can be said of it. We should not fancy that we are something else than what we have done. We should not explain away our deed by appeal to intentions—something ‘meant,’ something conjectured. What we are, our essence, is the work we have done.87

Let us say, then, that action is a self-expression—not of a transcendental self, but simply the expression or realization of a capacity or talent—and that this is the way we must understand individuality. The self or the individual is simply what is expressed, what is realized, in the action or work. The self is not some mysterious entity behind or beyond its action. We cannot appeal to an inner self to measure the deed. That would be to go beyond the essential nature of the work which is simply to be the realization of a potential. It will follow from this that there is no room even for exaltation, lamentation, or repentance over the work. Any of this would be to presuppose a self-in-itself that was, or might have been, or that failed to be, realized. But there is no such self-in-itself. The original nature or potential of the individual can be nothing but what actually gets carried out, expressed, realized in the world. We cannot lament that our work does not live up to our potential. Our potential is nothing but what we are able to realize in our work. The individual is what the individual actually does, not what they merely hope, dream, or intend.88 This is a view that academics are not likely to find congenial. We are all deeply convinced that we are capable of far more and much greater work than we ever turn out. Such is our self-delusion. There is no room for a Kantian self-in-itself behind or beyond or distinguished from what is actually realized.

In one of the examples that Kant gives of a moral act in the Foundations, he discusses talents. Hegel, I suggest, is arguing that Kant's treatment of talents is seriously flawed. Kant asks if the moral law could allow us to will to leave a useful talent undeveloped, and concludes that it will not allow us to do so. We cannot universalize not developing such a talent. The categorical imperative demands that we develop such talents.89 In the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Kant says that we have a duty to cultivate our natural powers, capacities, and endowments.90

The moral law, then, commands us to take as our end the realization of such specific talents. For Hegel this is simply incoherent. It is impossible to determine what this end might be before it has actually been realized. What talent I might have, what my potential might be, can only be discovered in what I am finally able to make real through action. Do I have the potential to write a book that is truly a masterpiece and thus would have a moral obligation to keep at it until I actually produce that book? Or do I merely have the potential to write a few valuable and interesting things and when I have done so would best be advised to move on to another topic? Or is it the case that my talent really lies in a completely different field altogether and that I am wasting my time in writing. You cannot know what your end is, what your talent is, what potential you have until you have actually carried it out.

Bernard Williams tells a story of a Gauguin-like figure who while concerned with the definite and pressing human claims made upon him and what is involved in their being neglected nevertheless turns away from them in order to realize his gifts as a painter and to pursue his art. This involves a good deal of risk. Whether or not he succeeds in developing this gift, whether he actually has a significant gift, he cannot tell for sure ahead of time. Thus, whether his action can be justified depends, certainly in part, on whether he actually has and is finally able to develop this gift. Any justification, then, will at least in part have to be retrospective.91 But for Kant the categorical imperative would certainly seem to require that we know and will our end ahead of time. We must act on a maxim—a maxim that we formulate, analyze, and find to be universalizable ahead of time. If we do not have such a rational principle to act upon, our act will be heteronomous, at the whim of the way of the world—not free or moral. However, Allison argues that:

since maxims are self-imposed rules, one cannot make something one's maxim without in some sense being aware of it as such, or at least without the capacity to become aware of it. … This does not entail, however, either that we possess a “Cartesian certainty” regarding our motivation (which Kant, of course, denies) or that we must explicitly formulate our maxims to ourselves before acting. The point is rather a conceptual one: namely, that I cannot act on a principle (according to the conception of law) without an awareness of that principle, although I need not be explicitly aware of myself as acting on that principle. Moreover, it must be possible in subsequent reflection to discover and articulate (albeit not in an indefeasible way) the maxims on which one acts …92

But where we cannot know ahead of time what our potential, our talent, and thus our end is, it does not make sense to say that in subsequent reflection we could discover and articulate the maxim on which we acted. If it was not possible to formulate a specific maxim in the first place, it would not be possible to discover and articulate one in retrospect. Instead of specific maxims, Kant seems to have in mind all-purpose maxims to the effect that we should realize whatever useful talents we might have,

No principle of reason prescribes exactly how far one must go in this effort. … Besides, the variety of circumstances which men may encounter makes quite optional the choice of the kind of occupation for which one should cultivate his talent. There is here, therefore, no law of reason for actions but only for the maxim of actions, viz., “Cultivate your powers of mind and body so as to be able to fulfill all the ends which may arise for you, uncertain as you may be which ends might become your own.”93

However, such all-purpose maxims tell us nothing whatsoever about what it is moral to do in any specific case because we cannot know where our talent lies or how much talent we have in any specific area. The categorical imperative cannot tell me whether I should keep working toward a masterpiece, switch topics often, or give up writing altogether?

Furthermore, all of this presents problems for the second formulation of the categorical imperative. If it is a duty to ‘treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only’,94 and if as a consequence of this we have a duty to develop our powers, capacities, and talents,95 then we are in trouble. If we cannot know what our talents are ahead of time, and if to treat humanity as an end requires that we develop our talents and those of others, then we will not know how to act in these cases. Again, we cannot give in to Kantian virtue's claim that it must be put in charge, that it can survey the whole terrain, that it will foresee what must be done, either to direct the way of the world or even to develop our talents by way of treating humanity as an end. Virtue must instead take a very different stance. It must deal with what is, with actuality, with what has already been actualized. As Williams suggests, it is largely retrospective. We cannot simply and easily look ahead to what Kantian virtue claims ought to be realized.

What do we do then? Well, Hegel thinks real people just act. And he thinks Kant well knows they do. Indeed, in his ‘Idea for a Universal History,’ Kant takes a very different approach to the development of talents. He holds that it is simply self-interest that causes our talents to develop. As in Adam Smith's model of a market society, competing particular interests force the development of powers, capacities, and talents. Selfishness awakens our powers and stirs us out of complacency. It moves us to action, drives us to accomplish things, and develops our potential.96 The way of the world and not virtue is what develops our talents.

Hegel, I suggest, thinks that Kant's approach in the Foundations is senseless and that the view Kant presents in his ‘Idea for a Universal History’ is correct. Within a set of circumstances, our interests are formed; they lead us to action; and we realize a potential.97 At the same time, Hegel is trying to develop his own view, namely, that acting, the development of talents, is an objectification of the self. Only the public product, only the result, is the realization of the talent. So also the objectified talent or product (the bridge or painting) must be recognized by others. An unrecognized product means a non-objective, non-real talent—merely your own subjective opinion that you have a talent. A talent that will never be recognized is not a real talent.98

We are headed for a crisis here. There is nothing to sustain a Kantian self-in-itself. We must give up the notion of a transcendental self grounded in a beyond; we must abandon the notion of a self that is supposed to have powers and talents that it should, but may or may not, realize. There is no such self. It is only in and through the actual realization of powers, capacities, and talents that a self emerges. The self emerges in its objectifications. A self becomes real insofar as it objectifies itself and is recognized. Our problem here is that at the level of individual consciousness the objectifications of the self cannot gain adequate recognition.

What we have, then, are works in which individuals have objectified their powers, capacities, and talents, but which are ephemeral and unreal because other individuals find them unimportant—not their expression, realization, or objectification—and thus do not recognize them.99 At this point, Hegel begins to take up the notion of ‘die Sache selbst’—the fact itself. Hyppolite suggests that Hegel is distinguishing between a thing of perception (Ding) and a thing of spirit or culture, a human thing (Sache).100 The point that Hegel wants to move toward, I believe, is that facts are sociocultural constructions. Individuals act, express, objectify themselves (their powers and capacities) in a work. This is what constitutes facts. Facts are constructs, creations, interpretations. Individual activity creates them through work, scholarship, research, experiment, production, and so forth. Reality is a spiritual-cultural substance formed by individual action or work.

Take the fact that ‘Augustus was an Emperor of Rome.’ This might seem to be just a simple independently given fact. But Rome, its political institutions, and its emperors were historical realities constructed by Romans. Without this historical construction, there would be no Rome, no Roman emperors, and no Augustus. For the statement ‘Augustus was an Emperor of Rome’ to have anything beyond the most trivial meaning, we must understand what Rome was, what its political institutions were, and what an emperor was. And to gain this understanding would require interpretation—interpretation that we could argue about and disagree over. At a certain point, our interpretations of our constructions may crystallize into what looks like a simple independently given fact—the fact itself—but that is because our differences have paled and we have come to take these interpretations and constructions for granted.

At this point in Chapter V, then, actuality—all that is actual—is now identified with the action or expression of individuals. The actual world is the action of all individuals expressing their talents and objectifying their powers in works or acts. Consciousness (at least for us) now knows that it constitutes its world. In working on reality, in forming it as a product, in expressing and objectifying our powers and talents, through research, experiment, work, and so forth, reality is constituted by us.

The problem remaining here is that we are still at the level of individual consciousness and thus each individual only recognizes itself in the object and only takes its own objects to be significant. Others do not recognize your object nor you theirs. What Hegel calls Honest Consciousness responds to this by holding that even if it did not bring a purpose to reality, did not accomplish anything that others would recognize, did not build a bridge or paint a painting, but tried, ‘at least willed it,’ well, that is good enough. Honest Consciousness is consoled. Even failure was an attempt.101 As for Kant, this consciousness is not motivated by results, consequences, or the actual realization of purposes.102 Its concern is with its attempt, its intention, and the fact itself.

But this leads to deceit. Honest Kantian consciousness is not as honest as it claims. Honest Consciousness would claim not to be concerned with accomplishments and recognition but simply with the fact itself and with trying hard—and, indeed, this too is the way others regard it. They assume that the real issue is the work, the fact itself, regardless of who accomplished it. As long as we all really tried, it does not matter who actually made the scientific discovery or who gets the recognition. Only the discovery itself really matters. Only the advance of science matters to Honest Consciousness—not its own accomplishment or recognition. Or so it would seem, until anyone tries to question Honest Consciousness's accomplishment. Just see what happens if you try to point out to Honest Consciousness that in fact you had already made this scientific discovery earlier, or even if you claim credit for significantly assisting in the discovery. You will begin to see that Honest Consciousness has left the position where it claimed to be and we all thought it was. It is really Honest Consciousness's own doing that concerns it—not merely the fact itself. Honest Consciousness wants the credit for making the discovery itself. And when others come to see that this is Honest Consciousness's real intent, they feel deceived. However, their own haste to assist demonstrated just as much that their real concern was not merely the fact itself either but their own desire to be in on the discovery themselves and to be recognized for it. They wanted to deceive in just the way they complain of being deceived.103 Consciousness is not interested in the fact itself regardless of who expresses it.

We might compare this to Kant, who, in explaining the fourth formulation of the categorical imperative in the Foundations, argues that if we were only subject to moral laws, it would be possible to attach ourselves to them out of self-interest—we could be motivated to obey or disobey the law out of self-interest. But if we act as a supreme legislator, as we must, this becomes impossible. If we were to let our interest predominate, we would be subordinating the law (and our legislation of the law) to this interest. As legislators, then, we would not be supreme. The law would not be supreme. Our interest would be. If we are to act as a supreme legislator, then interest must go.104

Hegel, we must conclude, thinks this is deceptive. Whether or not the supreme legislator is motivated by self-interest in the sense that Kant has in mind is not the real issue because what the supreme legislator is very definitely interested in is being the supreme legislator, the one who issues the moral law. The supreme legislator is as much or more interested in its supremacy as it is in the categorical imperative itself. What consciousness is interested in is its own doing. Honest Consciousness is not interested in the fact itself apart from the fact that it came up with the fact itself. Others are the same way. If they seek to assist you, they do so to get their own piece of the action. There is a deception here. They are not simply assisting you, but trying to manifest their own action and trying to take credit for your action. And you behave in the same way toward them.

However, it would be a mistake to think that there is something perverse about Honest Consciousness. Hegel is not trying to suggest that its behavior is anything but the perfectly normal behavior of consciousness in general. If consciousness confronts any sort of truth, work, fact, or object that is other, it has a drive to deny its otherness and claim it as its own. We can find consciousness doing this throughout the Phenomenology. The master claims the slave as his own; idealism claims reality as its own; consciousness even claims to have constructed God. Hegel's point here, I believe, is that it is a mistake to think that consciousness can or should be concerned only with objectivity, truth, the fact itself. Consciousness, just as much, and rightfully so, is concerned with its own doing, its involvement, its expression, its construction, its interest. As early as the ‘Positivity of the Christian Religion,’ Hegel says that we take an interest in a thing only if we can be active in its behalf.105 Kantian practical reason neglects this important and real side of consciousness. Practical reason, for Kant, cannot legitimately relate to the moral law out of interest. Practical reason must attend to the fact itself—the moral law as an abstract universal. Kantian practical reason is unable to give interest and the desire for recognition a significant place. We cannot act morally without subordinating our interest; we cannot act morally from interest. Kantian morality is unable to satisfy this other legitimate side of consciousness. Hegel's point is that Sittlichkeit will be able to do so.

And so what we have as long as we remain at the level of individual consciousness is chaos. Each individual both wants credit for their construction, discovery, or work, yet pretends to be concerned only with the fact itself and not their own doing, until others, as they naturally will, begin to point out their role in the work or try to take a role by assisting, at which point the fact itself becomes much less important than the fact that it is your own work.

Well, what if Honest Consciousness decides that it does not care about the fact itself; what if it claims that the only thing that interests it is its own action, its own contribution, its own work—and nothing else? Well, this will not succeed either. Our own expression, effort, or work simply becomes meaningless, becomes nothing, unless the fact itself is of some significance—of some public significance. If your work is incapable of gaining any recognition, then it will do no good for Honest Consciousness to insist that all it cares about is its own work. If this work, if the fact itself, is insignificant and meaningless, then Honest Consciousness has done no real work. Both sides—your own work and the public significance of the fact itself—are essential.106

We cannot, then, explain action simply by intention. To retreat too far into the inner life is not only to try to elude responsibility for consequences, as Pippin puts it,107 but it is also to strip action of any meaning. Kenneth Westphal makes a point that is worth noting in this context. Practical reason is inseparable from social practice. It is true that actions are carried out by individuals, but such actions are possible and only have meaning in so far as they participate in sociocultural practices. There are two important questions here, Westphal suggests: (1) are individuals the only bearers of psychological states, and (2) can psychological states be understood in individual terms? Individualists answer both questions in the affirmative, and most holists answer both questions in the negative. Hegel, however, answers the first question affirmatively and the second negatively.108 In other words, it is only individuals who act, have intentions, construct facts, and so forth. Nevertheless, such acts, intentions, and facts cannot be understood apart from sociocultural practices—their meaning can only be understood as interpreted in a sociocultural context.

If that is the case, then as soon as we turn to the self and attempt to understand the individual subject, we will find that it too cannot be understood apart from sociocultural practices. It too can only be understood as interpreted within a sociocultural context. While we do have individual subjects, for Hegel, we will find that we will not be able to hold on to the notion of a subject that is radically distinct from other subjects, that can stand above or outside the world, that thus could be the source of a virtue that could guide the way of the world, that could be a supreme legislator, or that could be committed purely to the fact itself. In short, we do not have a Kantian subject, a subject that could alone be the source of a categorical imperative. Instead, we will have to develop a different conception of a subject—one embedded in a context of cultural practices, meanings, objectifications, and recognition.


In the final two sections of Chapter V, ‘Reason as Lawgiver’ and ‘Reason as Testing Laws,’ we take up an analysis of Kant's categorical imperative that is direct and explicit enough to be clear to all readers. Here we have a Kantian consciousness, a supreme lawgiver, that takes itself to be absolute, universal, and authoritative.109 It would claim to be the true and absolute ethical authority, but Hegel will try to show us that it is not, that this is only possible if we move to Sittlichkeit, and that all that Kant can give us is the same old Honest Consciousness who really tries but always fails.110

At any rate, for Kant, practical reason claims to know immediately what is right and good and to be able to issue determinate laws accordingly. As Kant puts it in the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue,

An imperative is a practical rule by which an action, in itself contingent, is made necessary … a rule whose representation makes a subjectively contingent action necessary and therefore represents the subject as one who must be constrained (necessitated) to conform to this rule. The categorical (unconditional) imperative is one that does not command mediately … but immediately, through the mere representation of this action itself (its form), which is thought through the categorical imperative as objectively necessary …111

Let us see if Kantian practical reason can, as it claims, give us laws that make subjectively contingent actions objective, immediate, unconditional, and necessary. Let us take an example of such a law: ‘Everyone ought to speak the truth.’112 Well, as Hegel points out, the condition will at once have to be admitted: if you know the truth. The law, then, would have to be stated: everyone ought to speak the truth in so far as they know it. But,

with this admission, it in fact admits that already, in the very act of saying the commandment, it really violates it. It said: everyone ought to speak the truth; but it meant: he ought to speak it according to his knowledge and conviction; that is to say, what it said was different from what it meant; and to speak otherwise than one means, means not speaking the truth. The untruth or inapt expression in its improved form now runs: everyone ought to speak the truth according to his knowledge and conviction at the time. But with this correction, what the proposition wanted to enunciate as universally necessary and intrinsically valid, has really turned round into something completely contingent. For speaking the truth is made contingent on whether I can know it, and can convince myself of it; and the proposition says nothing more than that a confused muddle of truth and falsehood ought to be spoken just as anyone happens to know, mean, and understand it.113

We do not have anything unconditional, necessary, or objective here, but merely good old Honest Consciousness still trying its subjective best. We might further change the proposition by adding that the truth ought to be known, but then we would contradict our original assumption that practical reason knows the truth immediately. We would be admitting that it does not actually know what is true—it merely ought to know it. This is not unconditional and objective morality; it is merely subjective and intended.

Take the commandment: ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’114 Such love would at least require, Hegel suggests, that we work to remove evil and do good for our neighbor. And that would mean that to love my neighbor intelligently I would have to know what is good and bad. Unintelligent love might well do my neighbor harm. We are slipping toward the subjectivity of Honest Consciousness again. At any rate, Hegel argues that the agency most capable of avoiding evil and accomplishing intelligent good for my neighbor would be the just state, in comparison to which what any single individual is likely to accomplish is minimal. Furthermore, the action of the state is so pervasive that if I as an individual in trying to benefit my neighbor were to oppose the state in a way that was either intended to be criminal or (like the friends of Honest Consciousness) was simply an attempt to cheat the state of its due credit in order to claim it for myself, such action would most likely be frustrated and rendered useless. While there is room for individual beneficence in single, isolated, contingent situations, generally speaking, the socio-cultural-political world is such a pervasive power that doing good of the sort that Kant envisions, that is, the doing good of an autonomous individual consciousness, certainly cannot realistically be demanded necessarily and unconditionally. Such action is too easily swept aside or rendered meaningless. Whether the act will be a work that benefits the neighbor as intended, or be immediately undone, or twisted and perverted by circumstance into harm, is a matter of chance—certainly when we are dealing with the way of the world, this race of devils that only appears as a nation of angels. It cannot meaningfully be demanded necessarily and unconditionally that we act for the good of others if it will always be contingent whether any act, depending upon whether it accords with the state or not, will be erased or reinforced, distorted or maintained, turned into its opposite or left as it is. It is as likely to be possible as not. We have not moved very far beyond fate to rationally ordered providence—we have chance here, not universality and necessity. If one objects that Kantian morality should not be motivated by concern for such consequences or contexts, the answer must be that it cannot then do good to its neighbor in any morally significant way. In the Foundations, Kant argues that:

An action performed from duty does not have its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim by which it is determined. Its moral value, therefore, does not depend on the realization of the object of the action but merely on the principle of volition by which the action is done, without any regard to the objects of the faculty of desire. … Wherein, then, can this worth lie if it is not in the will in relation to its hoped-for effect? It can lie nowhere else than in the principle of the will, irrespective of the ends which can be realized by such action.115

We are back to good old Honest Consciousness who has at least tried, or, as Hegel puts it, ‘[i]f this consciousness does not convert its purpose into a reality, it has at least willed it, i.e. it makes the purpose qua purpose, the mere doing which does nothing … and can therefore explain and console itself with the fact that all the same something was taken in hand and done.’116

We do not have a consciousness capable of giving us an objective, unconditional, immediate, and necessary law here. Its law ‘does not express, as an absolute ethical law should, something that is valid in and for itself’; its laws ‘stop at Ought, they have no actuality …’117 Kantian practical reason does not give us laws; it merely issues commandments.

What does it mean to say that we do not have a law, but merely a commandment? In the Foundations, Kant claims that we can derive the fourth formulation of the categorical imperative, namely, a kingdom of ends, from the fact that we must consider each individual to be a supreme lawgiver. A kingdom of ends is a union of rational beings in a system of common laws.118 In other words, Kant is claiming that individual practical reason gives us all we need from which to derive the state and its laws. From supreme lawgivers, each obeying only laws they give themselves, we can derive the system of laws that make up the state. Hegel denies that individual consciousness can give us the sorts of laws we have or need in a state.

The sorts of laws that Hegel thinks we need are not grounded in the will of particular individuals. Laws must have their own intrinsic being—they must exist in and for themselves. This is not to say that laws are not constructed. Even God is constructed for Hegel. And the fact that laws are constructed by citizens will be essential if we are to be free. But the law is not constructed by individual consciousness. It does not have its source in individual Kantian practical reason. It is the work of all, of a community, a culture, a nation. Laws are rooted in and grow out of the customs, traditions, and practices of a people and are tied to their social and public institutions, their public values, their philosophy, religion, and art. Such laws are not subjective and contingent; they are objective, unconditional, and necessary—they are true and absolute.

Let us see if we can understand and make at least a reasonably plausible case for the sorts of laws that Hegel is after. Consider the example of a state and its educational system. In Hegel view, the state would expect that its professors teach the truth. We need not conclude that this will threaten academic freedom. Even if the state were a paradigm of respect for academic freedom, it would still assume, at least, that its professors did not knowingly and systematically teach falsehood. Even further, Hegel would hold, it will also expect these professors to know the truth, at the very least, in the sense that it would be fraudulent for the university to hire professors who have not undergone the proper training and engaged in serious study, whose only credentials were that they were enthusiastic about their opinions and sincere in their intentions. So when the university hires professors of engineering or art it does not merely expect them like Honest Consciousness to try their best. It expects them to actually be able to build real bridges and paint real paintings and to teach others how to do so. We hold professors responsible for actually doing these things, not just for trying. So also we expect the university to give its students an education that will (assuming a just society) fit them for life in the state, prepare them for a vocation, and give them the moral and scientific knowledge needed for these purposes. We expect this at least in the sense that were the university systematically to fail to do so we would conclude that it was not functioning properly. The law has a right to require more than that the university try. It is expected to succeed.

What we need and have in culture, Hegel thinks, is far richer and more powerful than mere subjective Kantian oughts. Sittlichkeit does not merely tell us that we ought to educate our children or do good to our neighbors, it gives us an understanding of what things like good to our neighbor and proper education actually are and it embeds them in our customs, traditions, practices, and institutions so that we are able to act in the world and actually do act accordingly. It enables us not just to try or to will, but to succeed, and to pass this knowledge and ability on to others. It gives us much more than an ought—it gives us actuality.

What we must see is that Sittlichkeit is missing in Kant's thought and that we need it to account for our experience. A true law must grow up and be rooted in a community, in its customs, traditions, and practices. It must be a force that morally empowers its citizens. It is not enough (which is to say, for Hegel, it is not ethically enough) that it merely oblige them morally, that it be a mere maxim that can be universalized, that it merely be willed. But that is enough to establish its ‘moral value’ for Kant, as he himself says.119 And so Kantian reason is not a lawgiver. At best it is a test of laws.


But even as a test of laws, Kant's ethics fail. In taking up a given content in order to test it, to see if it is universalizable, we find, at least in some important cases, that one content will work as well as its opposite. If you ask, for example, whether there should be private property, you will find private property to be perfectly self-consistent—you can universalize it without contradiction. But you can just as well universalize the absence of private property—a community of goods or communism. That involves no contradiction either.120

Singer, in his by now classic criticism, claims that Hegel is ‘almost incredibly simple-minded’ here. It seems to me, however, that Singer misses Hegel's point entirely. According to Singer, Hegel should be able to see that,

if everyone stole, whenever and whatever he pleased, there would be no such thing as property and hence the purpose of stealing would be made impossible. … Yet [Hegel] seems utterly confused as to why it would therefore be wrong to steal. … Kant's point … is a relatively simple one, which is perhaps why the profundities of Hegel are so far from the mark. It could not be willed to be a universal law that everyone could steal whenever he wished to, for if everyone stole whenever he wished to, or took for his own anything he happened to want, there would be no property and hence nothing to steal—there would be nothing he could call his own. Stealing presupposes that there is such a thing as property—something to be stolen …121

Singer so little understands Hegel's criticism of Kant that the last line of this passage, intended to undermine Hegel, in fact concedes Hegel's point against Kant. Hegel thinks that in formulating a maxim the Kantian presupposes a certain form of property as given and that only with this presupposition will the principle of universalization work. Unless we know what sort of property is right in a given culture—and universalization alone will not tell us—we cannot know what would constitute an act of theft and what would not. For example, suppose I enter a store, pocket an article of consumption without putting down any money, and walk off. Was that theft or not? Was it immoral or not? Asking whether the maxim can be universalized will not tell me. If I live in a market economy with private property, the act was theft. If I live in a communist society based upon the principle ‘to each according to their need,’ it was not theft. Both private property and communism are equally universalizable. Universalizability will not decide the issue. We must have a cultural world with cultural content given to us. Either private property or communism must be given as right before we can go on to decide what constitutes an act of theft. We need Sittlichkeit, that is, settled and given customs, traditions, and practices—we need culture—for morality to be possible.

Singer basically has Hegel's argument backwards. He makes the common but mistaken claim that in Hegel's view the categorical imperative is empty and contentless, ‘Hegel assumes that the categorical imperative is supposed to be applied in a vacuum … that Kant's ethics is an “empty formalism.”’ Hegel, in Singer's view, does not see that if ‘someone proposes to adopt a certain maxim, or to act in a certain way in certain circumstances in order to achieve a certain purpose, then we … “already possess a content,” to which the categorical imperative can be applied.’122 This is not what Hegel is saying. Hegel is not denying that the categorical imperative has a content in Singer's sense; Hegel fully accepts that in formulating a maxim we take up a content. He says explicitly in the Phenomenology that what we have is a ‘standard for deciding whether a content is capable of being a law or not,’ and he goes on to talk about content at least three times in the next page.123 Moreover, Hegel well knows that adopting a maxim commits the person to an act or an end. After all, as we have seen, one of Hegel's criticisms of the categorical imperative is that it gives us an ought—for Hegel it is a mere ought rather than an is—but nevertheless it does give us an ought (it gives us a commandment, though not a law).

The problem here stems, I think, from misinterpreting the following passage from Hegel's Philosophy of Right,

The Proposition: “Act as if the maxim of thine action could be laid down as a universal principle”, would be admirable if we already had determinate principles of conduct. That is to say, to demand of a principle that it shall be able to serve in addition as a determinant of universal legislation is to presuppose that it already possesses a content. Given the content, then of course the application of the principle would be a simple matter.124

Singer takes the implication of this passage to be that we do not have a content, that the categorical imperative is contentless. But that is not the point the passage is making at all. The point is that for the categorical imperative to work we must be given a content—in the sense of a determinant principle of conduct. In other words, our culture has to tell us, for example, that private property is right. Once we have this, Hegel is saying, then the categorical imperative will have no difficulty in telling us that walking off with the article from the store was theft. Hegel is not claiming that the categorical imperative has no content. He is claiming that it will not work without content. Where does the content come from? It is certainly not generated out of the categorical imperative itself. It is taken up from culture—it is given by culture as right. Private property must be given as right before we can see that what we did in the store was theft. Hegel makes this point very clearly in the Philosophy of Right,

The absence of property contains in itself just as little contradiction as the non-existence of this or that nation, family, &c., or the death of the whole human race. But if it is already established on other grounds and presupposed that property and human life are to exist and be respected, then indeed it is a contradiction to commit theft or murder; a contradiction must be a contradiction of something, i.e. of some content presupposed from the start as a fixed principle.125

The argument against Kant, then, is not that the categorical imperative is contentless. The argument is that the categorical imperative presupposes it content; it takes up its content uncritically. The Kantian formulating a maxim concerning theft assumes that private property is given. As Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology, ‘Laws are … tested; and for the consciousness which tests them they are already given. It takes up their content simply as it is, without concerning itself … with the particularity and contingency inherent in its reality … its attitude towards it is just as uncomplicated as is its being a criterion for testing it.’126

Perhaps this point is made most clearly in the Natural Law essay, though Hegel overstates his point in this early essay. He says,

[i]f this formalism is to be able to promulgate a law, some matter, something specific, must be posited to constitute the content of the law. And the form given to this specific matter is unity or universality. “That a maxim of thy will shall count at the same time as a principle of universal legislation”—this basic law of pure practical reason expresses the fact that something specific, constituting the content of the maxim of the particular will, shall be posited as concept, as universal. But every specific matter is capable of being clothed with the form of the concept … there is nothing whatever which cannot in this way be made into a moral law.127

While Hegel is overstating his case in holding that anything can be made into a moral law, nevertheless, his basic point is that different cultures can and have established very different things as moral laws—very different forms of property, for example. And it is obvious that quite consistent social organizations can be built around such different laws. The principle of universalization is not going to show us that all but one of these forms of property and social organization are contradictory; there will at least be many different forms of property and social organization that it will not show to be contradictory. The categorical imperative, then, will not tell us which of these forms of property is right. Only after we are given one of these forms of property as right can the categorical imperative begin to tell us what would be an act of theft and what would not.

Hegel is not out to junk the categorical imperative. He is simply claiming that a certain content must be given for it to work, a content which in his view Kant naively presupposes. This content is given by culture and thus morality needs a theory of culture. Hegel is trying to drive us toward Sittlichkeit. Furthermore, Hegel is not out to junk universalizability. In Hegel's view, universalizability is necessary for morality; it is just that it does not amount to morality. Acting on a categorical imperative—in so far as that means acting merely on what reason tells us is universalizable—is not enough to be moral. As Hegel puts it, something is not right because it is non-contradictory; ‘it is right because it is what is right.’128

Let us see if we can even better explain the sort of moral law that Hegel is after. For Hegel, we can fail in two ways. If we have a real law, the sort that Hegel wants, an absolute, not a mere commandment or an ought, then this law cannot be issued by a single person or an individual consciousness. That would turn the law into something tyrannical and it would turn obedience to such a law into something slavish. On the other hand, while Kantian testing of laws certainly gives us freedom from such laws, which are rejected as alien and heteronomous, nevertheless it leaves us with individual consciousness and the loss of an absolute grounding.129 Hegel wants to avoid both of these extremes.

What Hegel wants in a law is that it be valid in and for itself. It must not be grounded in the will of particular individuals. In obeying such laws, self-consciousness must not in any way be subordinating itself to a master whose commands are alien and arbitrary. Self-consciousness must find these laws to be ‘the thoughts of its own absolute consciousness, thoughts which are immediately its own.130 We construct these laws; we issue them; but as participating in a cultural consciousness, the consciousness of a people or nation, not as individual consciousnesses. These laws are not arbitrary, tyrannical, or alien. They are not heteronomous. They are my own laws. I am free in obeying them. But I also recognize them as universal, objective, absolute, the will of all, the will of my people.

Self-consciousness does not even believe in its laws. Belief in something suggests that the believer is an individual consciousness and that what it believes in is alien to it. For Hegel we should be immediately one with our laws.131 It is not enough to merely believe in them. Laws must be so rooted in the customs and practices of my culture that I simply know them. They are facts. They are true. They are absolute. Is this really so strange? I suggest that we do not merely believe that murder, for example, is wrong. We certainly do not need, in order to know that it is wrong, to engage in a subjective process of analysis, a deduction, like asking whether murder can be universalized without contradiction.132 To suggest that we must is to miss something fundamental about morality. It is to subjectivize something that is absolute. Hegel's concept of Sittlichkeit wants to avoid heteronomy and give us freedom, but without losing the absolute.

We must move to culture, where ethical content has an objective being of its own, where it is not just subjective rationality that decides what is moral as for Kant. Things are not moral simply because my rationality finds them to be moral. They are objectively moral—moral in-themselves. Yet this objective moral content is not something other, alien to consciousness, heteronomous, as Kant would think. It is the construction of consciousness. Think of the Athenian assembly creating its own laws—laws which grow out of and are reinforced by custom and tradition, the myths and the gods, and thus are objective, absolute, ethical in-themselves for the people they form. Only Sittlichkeit is capable of bringing all of the elements of the ethical together: (1) subjective passion, interest, engagement, involvement; (2) all located in a cultural context in which we are at home, which we find to be our own, all constructed by the citizens themselves, where we are thus free; which (3) at the same time grows out of and is reinforced by custom and tradition, public institutions, art, religion, and philosophy, the objective and absolute values, ends, and purposes of a nation; and (4) within this context the citizens reflect rationally and establish universal laws. In such a context, citizens know and accomplish—they live in and are a part of—the ethical. Ethical life exists; it empowers its citizens; it pervades and is actually played out in their lives and practices. It is not a mere ought.

To fully justify Hegel's ethical views would require that we say much more about Sittlichkeit, but that is a task for another paper. Our task here has been to show that Hegel's critique of Kantian ethics is much more powerful and thorough than has been recognized by those who fail to see that Hegel criticize Kant's ethics throughout a large part of Chapter V of the Phenomenology, not just in the last two sections. Defenders of Kant often want to claim that Hegel has not understood Kant or that Hegel attacks a crudely understood Kant. I hope I have shown that Hegel understands Kant in a rather sophisticated way, thinks Kant is wrong, and does a reasonable job of arguing against Kant. Moreover, it seems to me that many Kantians can be accused of misunderstanding Hegel, and once they begin to understand him, they will find arguments against Kant that, whether they can finally be answered or not, certainly cannot simply be dismissed as mere misunderstandings of Kant.


  1. Q. Lauer, S. J., A Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (New York: Fordham University Press 1976), 172.

  2. Lauer, 42. See also, R. B. Pippin, Hegel's Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989), 118. Also, M. S. Gram, ‘Moral and Literary Ideals in Hegel's Critique of “The Moral View of the World,”’ CLIO, 7 (1978), 376.

  3. Phenomenology of Spirit (hereafter PhS), trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1977), 214 and, for the German, Gesammelte Werke (hereafter GW), ed. Rheinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Hamburg: Felix Meiner 1968 ff.), IX, 195.

  4. PhS, 211-13 and GW, IX, 193-94.

  5. PhS, 216 and GW, IX, 197.

  6. PhS, 218 and GW, IX, 199.

  7. The Logic of Hegel (hereafter L), trans. W. Wallace (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1968), 91-92 and, for the German, Sämtliche Werke (hereafter SW), ed. H. Glockner (Stuttgart: Frommann 1927 ff.), VIII, 133. PhS, 103 and GW, IX, 102.

  8. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (hereafter F), trans. L. W. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1959), 59-60 and, for the German, Kant's gesammelte Schriften (hereafter KGS), ed. Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: Georg Reimer 1910 ff.), IV, 440-41.

  9. F, 14, also 46 and KGS, IV, 398, 428.

  10. Critique of Practical Reason (hereafter CPrR), trans. L. W. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1956), 86, 126 and KGS, V, 83-84, 122.

  11. CPrR, 86 and KGS, V, 83-84. Metaphysical Principles of Virtue: Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals (hereafter MPV), trans. J. Ellington (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1964), 12 and KGS, VI, 213-14. Also, see H. E. Allison, Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990), 39-40, 97, 102, 110-11. Also, A. W. Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990), 146-48. K. R. Westphal, ‘Hegel's Critique of Kant's Moral View of the World,’ Philosophical Topics, 19 (1991), 150. B. Herman, The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1993), 12.

  12. Lauer, 157.

  13. PhS, 218 and GW, IX, 199.

  14. Hegel's Philosophy of Right (hereafter PR), trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1967), 261-62 and SW, VII, 237-38.

  15. PhS, 218 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 199.

  16. Here I prefer the Abbott translation, see Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. T. K. Abbott (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1949), 50 and KGS, IV, 433; for the Beck translation, see F, 51.

  17. PhS, 218 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 199.

  18. F, 15-16 and KGS, IV, 399. CPrR, 86 and KGS, V, 83. MPV, 60-61, 70, 113-14 and KGS, VI, 401-2, 410, 449-50. Indeed, Kant even counsels ‘moral apathy,’ a lack of emotion, which, however, is to be distinguished from indifference; MPV, 68 and KGS, VI, 408.

  19. Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate, in On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M. Knox (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith 1970), 205-24 and, for the German, Hegels theologische Jugendschriften (hereafter HTJ), ed. H. Nohl (Frankfurt am Main: Minerva 1966), 261-75.

  20. Spirit of Christianity, 212-14 and HTJ, 266-68.

  21. Spirit of Christianity, 219, also see 220 and HTJ, 272, 273.

  22. MPV, 12 and KGS, VI, 213.

  23. Spirit of Christianity, 225 and HTJ, 277.

  24. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (hereafter RWLRA), trans. T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row 1960), 19 (italics in the text; German terms added) and, for the German, KGS, VI, 23-24. Allison 39-40.

  25. K. Ameriks, ‘The Hegelian Critique of Kantian Morality,’ in New Essays on Kant, ed. B. den Ouden and M. Moen (New York: Peter Lang 1987), 194-97. Allison, 184-85.

  26. PhS, 219 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 200.

  27. Critique of Pure Reason (hereafter CPR), A447=B475; I have used the N. Kemp Smith translation (New York: St. Martin's Press 1965) and KGS, III-IV, but cite the standard A and B edition pagination so that any edition may be used. Allison, 20. Also CPrR, 100 and KGS, V, 97.

  28. PhS, 221-22 and GW, IX, 202-3.

  29. PhS, 221 and GW, IX, 202.

  30. PhS, 222 and GW, IX, 203.

  31. Here I prefer Abbott's translation; see F (Abbott trans.), 15-16 and KGS, IV, 398. For Beck's translation, see F, 14. Also, see MPV, 49-50 and KGS, VI, 391.

  32. CPrR, 86 and KGS, V, 83.

  33. Ibid.

  34. CPrR, 126 and KGS, V, 122.

  35. CPrR, 111-19, 128-33 and KGS, V, 107-15, 124-28. For a different but interesting treatment of the Law of the Heart, see J. N. Shklar, Freedom and Independence: A Study of the Political Ideas of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1976) 102-9.

  36. CPrR, 86 and KGS, V, 83. MPV, 151 and KGS, VI, 482.

  37. PhS, 222-23 and GW, IX, 203-4.

  38. RWLRA, 169 (first italics added; second in the text) and KGS, VI, 181.

  39. F, 51 and KGS, IV, 432.

  40. MPV, 47 (my italics) and KGS, VI, 389.

  41. MPV, 38-39 and KGS, VI, 381.

  42. MPV, 46, 43 and KGS, VI, 388, 385-86.

  43. RWLRA, 90 (italics in text) and KGS, VI, 98-99.

  44. RWLRA, 87 (brackets in text) and KGS, VI, 95-96.

  45. PhS, 224 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 204.

  46. PhS, 223-24 and GW, IX, 203-4.

  47. Lauer, 158-59.

  48. Spirit of Christianity, 219-20 (italics in text) and HTJ, 272.

  49. PhS, 223 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 203.

  50. PhS, 224-25 and GW, IX, 205.

  51. Also, see Hegel's discussion of folk religion in the ‘Tübingen Essay’ of 1793, in Three Essays, 1793-1795, trans. P. Fuss and J. Dobbins (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press 1984), 49 and GW, I, 103.

  52. Positivity of the Christian Religion, in On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, 154 (italics and parentheses in the text) and GW, I, 367-68.

  53. PhS, 226 and GW, IX, 206. Compare with Kant's RWLRA, 25, 32-33 and KGS, VI, 30, 37.

  54. PhS, 227 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 207.

  55. Kant writes, ‘Thus we can say that the real things of past time are given in the transcendental object of experience; but they are objects for me and real in past time only in so far as I represent to myself (either by the light of history or by the guiding-clues of causes and effects) that a regressive series of possible perceptions in accordance with empirical laws, in a word, that the course of the world [der Weltlauf], conducts us to a past time-series as condition of the present time—a series which, however, can be represented as actual not in itself but only in the connection of a possible experience’; CPR, A495; also A450=B478. Also, see MPV, 15 and KGS, VI, 216. Also see Luther's translation of the Bible, Ephesians 2:2.

  56. Perpetual Peace (hereafter PP), in On History, ed. L. W. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1963), 112-13 and KGS, VIII, 366-67.

  57. Lauer, 162-63. J. Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. S. Cherniak and J. Heckman (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press 1974), 290.

  58. PhS, 231 and GW, IX, 210.

  59. ‘Idea for a Universal History’ (hereafter IUH), in On History, 18-19 and KGS, VIII, 24-25. PP, 112-13 and KGS, VIII, 366-67. Also, see my earlier treatment of these matters in Marx and Modern Political Theory (hereafter M&MPT) (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 1993), Chapters 4-5.

  60. IUH, 15 and KGS, VIII, 20-21.

  61. Ibid. PP, 106, 111 and KGS, VIII, 360-61, 365.

  62. A. Smith, Wealth of Nations, ed. E. Cannan (New York: Modern Library 1937), 423.

  63. IUH, 23 and KGS, VIII, 28. PP, 114 and KGS, VIII, 368.

  64. PP, 100 and KGS, VIII, 356.

  65. IUH, 18-19 and KGS, VIII, 24-25. PP, 111-13 and KGS, VIII, 365-67.

  66. IUH, 17-18 and KGS, VIII, 23.

  67. IUH, 22 and KGS, VIII, 27.

  68. IUH, 25 and KGS, VIII, 30.

  69. Hegel was also influenced by Adam Smith and James Steuart. For a fuller treatment of these matters, see my M&MPT, 123-30, 149-50 n.36.

  70. PhS, 228-30 and GW, IX, 208-10.

  71. MPV, 145 and KGS, VI, 477.

  72. MPV, 152; see also 64-65, 67-68 and KGS, VI, 483, 405, 408.

  73. PhS, 228-29, 235 and GW, IX, 208-9, 213.

  74. PhS, 230-32 and GW, IX, 209-11.

  75. PhS, 234 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 212-13.

  76. PhS, 235 and GW, IX, 213.

  77. PhS, 234 and GW, IX, 212.

  78. PR, 3 (italics in text), 11-12 and SW, VII, 22, 35-36.

  79. Miller translates ‘die Sache selbst’ as the ‘matter in hand itself,’ or elsewhere as the ‘heart of the matter.’ I think a better translation is simply ‘the fact itself.’

  80. PhS, 239-40 and GW, IX, 217-18. See also, L, 253 and SW, VII, 314. PR, 83 and SW, VII, 182. Also Wood, 137-39, 143, 151.

  81. PhS, 191-92 and GW, IX, 176-77.

  82. PhS, 193 and GW, IX, 178.

  83. F, 23 and KGS, IV, 407.

  84. F, 22-24 and KGS, IV, 406-8. Also, see CPR, A551=B579. For Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, the ideal of artistic beauty requires the visible expression in bodily form of the moral ideas that rule us inwardly; Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner 1966), 72 and KGS, V, 235.

  85. As, for example, F, 63-81 and KGS, IV, 444-62.

  86. PhS, 233-34 and GW, IX, 212.

  87. PhS, 194, 191 and GW, IX, 178-79, 176-77.

  88. PhS, 241-42 and GW, IX, 219-20.

  89. F, 40-41 and KGS, IV, 422-23. See also Onora (formerly Nell) O'Neill, Acting on Principle: An Essay on Kantian Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press 1975), 84-89.

  90. MPV, 44, 108 and KGS, VI, 386-87, 444.

  91. B. Williams, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981), 21-24.

  92. Allison, 90 (italics in the text). This may well lead to trouble. Later in the text, Allison discusses actions that are motivated both by duty and by inclination. He argues that it is a mistake to take Kant as holding that motives or incentives are psychic forces that operate either singly or in cooperation. For Kant, motives or incentives determine the will only if taken up into a maxim (Allison, 117). Let us imagine individuals who are trying to decide whether they were determined by duty or inclination and who did not formulate their maxim before acting. Recall that Kant himself claims that generally speaking we can never be certain whether we were motivated by duty or inclination. Can we simply and unproblematically accept what is discovered and articulated upon subsequent reflection concerning the maxims on which such individuals acted? Can we know what was taken up into a maxim if no maxim was explicitly formulated?

  93. MPV, 50-51 and KGS, VI, 392.

  94. F, 47 and KGS, IV, 429.

  95. MPV, 50-51 and KGS, VI, 392.

  96. IUH, 15-16 and KGS, VIII, 20-21.

  97. PhS, 240 and GW, IX, 218.

  98. PhS, 111 and GW, IX, 109. It is certainly possible for real talent to go unrecognized, for artists, say, to be ahead of their time, but to hold that a talent that will never be able to gain recognition is still a talent, is simply self-delusion.

  99. PhS, 245-46 and GW, IX, 223.

  100. Baillie's translation is clearer here: Phenomenology of Mind (hereafter PhM), trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper & Row 1967), 431 and GW, IX, 223; for Miller's translation, see PhS, 246. Hyppolite, 309.

  101. PhS, 247-48 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 224-25.

  102. F, 10 and KGS, IV, 394.

  103. PhS, 250 and GW, IX, 226-27; however, I prefer Baillie's translation, PhM, 435-36.

  104. F, 50-51 and KGS, IV, 432-33.

  105. Positivity of the Christian Religion, 164 and GW, I, 376.

  106. This is not to say that significant work never goes unrecognized. A work that is significant and deserving of recognition can fail to gain that recognition. But from this we cannot conclude that public recognition should be dismissed altogether and that all an Honest Consciousness need be concerned with is its own work. Its work amounts to nothing unless it deserves recognition. Recognition is essential here.

  107. Pippin, 206-7.

  108. K. R. Westphal, Hegel's Epistemological Realism: A Study of the Aim and Method of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (Dordrecht: Kluwer 1989), 176.

  109. PhS, 252-53 and GW, IX, 228-29.

  110. PhS, 259 and GW, IX, 234.

  111. MPV, 21-22 and KGS, VI, 222.

  112. PhS, 254 and GW, IX, 229.

  113. PhS, 254 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 230. Also, MPV, 90-92 and KGS, VI, 429-30.

  114. PhS, 255 and GW, IX, 230. MPV, 60-61, 113-23, 149 and KGS, VI, 401-2, 448-58, 480-81.

  115. F, 16 and KGS, IV, 399-400. Also, MPV, 119 and KGS, VI, 455.

  116. PhS, 247 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 224.

  117. PhS, 256 and GW, IX, 231.

  118. F, 50-51 and KGS, IV, 432-33.

  119. F, 16 and KGS, IV, 399.

  120. PhS, 257-58 and GW, IX, 233-34. PR, 89-90 and SW, VII, 193-94.

  121. M. G. Singer, Generalization in Ethics (New York: Knopf 1961), 251-52.

  122. Singer, 252. K. Westphal, ‘The basic context and structure of Hegel's Philosophy of Right,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, ed. F. C. Beiser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993), 252-53.

  123. PhS, 256 and GW, IX, 232. In PR, 90 and SW, VII, 194, Hegel speaks of bringing a particular content for acting under consideration.

  124. PR, 254 and SW, VII, 195.

  125. PR, 90 and SW, VII, 194.

  126. PhS, 257 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 232-33. Hoy makes an argument similar to mine; see D. C. Hoy, ‘Hegel's Critique of Kantian Morality,’ History of Philosophy Quarterly, 6 (1989), 216 ff.

  127. Natural Law, trans. T. M. Knox (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1975), 76-77 and, for the German, GW, IV, 436.

  128. PhS, 262 and GW, IX, 236.

  129. PhS, 260 and GW, IX, 234-35.

  130. PhS, 261 (italics in text) and GW, IX, 235.

  131. Ibid.

  132. Of course, to decide whether a particular act is an act of murder or whether it is first or second degree murder might require a great deal of analysis and deduction. That murder itself is wrong, however, does not and should not.

Robert Bruce Ware (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Ware, Robert Bruce. “Hegel's Metaphilosophy and Historical Metamorphosis.” In Hegel: The Logic of Self-consciousness and the Legacy of Subjective Freedom, pp. 7-32. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Ware addresses misperceptions of Hegel's views of philosophy and the philosophy of history.]

Hegel is commonly understood to have required that the philosophy of history must be retrospective and therefore fundamentally conservative. Yet at the same time he is thought to have claimed that his system involved an absolute truth beyond which no philosophy could advance, and that it therefore marked the end of the history of philosophy. The two claims are evidently inconsistent, since a history of philosophy, which must be bound by constraints on the philosophy of history, could not legitimately comment on philosophy's future. If this is the result of Hegel's metaphilosophy then he has contributed at least this much to his reputation for presumption and incoherence.

However, I shall argue that both claims are based upon misinterpretations that follow from inattention to Hegel's ontology, and that his metaphilosophy is more subtle and more critical than most interpreters have allowed. Though Hegel clearly requires that a philosophy draw its content from its time, he regards it as historically transcendent in its form, and as consequently playing a crucial role in the transition to the next historical epoch. The discussion begins with Hegel's views on the role of philosophy in history and proceeds to his conception of his place in the history of philosophy.


In a series of well-known passages in his preface to the Philosophy of Right (PR), Hegel declares that a philosophy is necessarily a product of its age.

Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as absurd to fancy that a philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as it is to fancy that an individual can over-leap his own age, jump over Rhodes. If his theory really goes beyond the world as it is and builds an ideal one as it ought to be, that world exists indeed, but only in his opinions, an unsubstantial element where anything you please may, in fancy, be built.1

Hegel's ostensibly open acknowledgement of his own philosophical limitations reflects his views on the historicity of reason. According to Hegel, the philosopher's rational faculty is a reflection of a deeper ontological reason which differs significantly from the common sense conception of the term. In contrast to ordinary notions of rationality, Hegelian reason necessarily expresses itself throughout the development of the world. It cannot be derived a priori but must evolve through time. The movement of reason can be traced retrospectively through reflection on the course of human history, but there can be no fully accurate prediction of its future.

As a consequence, the insight of any philosopher is restricted to an evaluation of his own historical epoch within the context of its antecedents, and despite the traditional aspirations of utopian thinkers, philosophy cannot provide a precise blueprint for future development. Instead, the proper task of the philosopher is to provide his generation with an adequate comprehension of itself as the product of its past.

Many commentators have examined what they have thought to be the conservative implications of this view, and have interpreted Hegel to mean that philosophy can play no part in reforming the world. This interpretation can be traced as least as far back as 1857 to Haym's influential claims that Hegel had reduced philosophy to “the scientific dwelling of the spirit of Prussian restoration”2 providing “the absolute formula” for “political conservatism, quietism and optimism”.3 Haym's interpretation set the tone for more than a century, and has been echoed by commentators such as Findlay and Avineri.4 On their view, Hegel required that philosophy must acquiesce in existing arrangements and content itself with pointing out that rationality which has already been realized in things as they stand. Hegel is thought to have meant that changes, however necessary and reasonable, can only be justified ex post facto. Taylor, for example, interprets Hegel as believing that

What human reason can do is only to grasp what has already been realised, to understand what reason has already achieved. But should an actual breach in existing reality, a revolutionary transformation, be necessary for reason, and thus on the cards, philosophy could not know. It would go on expounding the rational in the current system, while revolutionaries without benefit of sound thought would launch themselves into action. Later a higher synthesis would show how both understandings were partial.5

Interpretations such as this have led to the common view that Hegel saw philosophy as a kind of palliative. He is said to have believed that philosophy has no business in the world apart from providing a reconciliation with the status quo, however much injustice and irrationality this might happen to involve. This quiescence is understood to follow from Hegel's belief that the history of the world had reached a culmination or final plateau wherein everything, if not entirely harmonious, was at least acceptable. Anyone sensitive to a need for radical reform would naturally find this consolation to be unsatisfactory, and that is why so many who have felt that need have rejected, or radically modified, Hegel.

Yet this interpretation is at odds with recent readings of Hegel's metaphilosophy,6 as well as with lecture notes on Hegel's Rechtsphilosophie compiled from 1817 to 1820 and recently brought to light by Henrich and Ilting.7 These notes not only suggest that Hegel was sympathetic to political rebellion,8 but also provide more progressive formulations of Hegel's famous dictum regarding the rational and the actual, to which Taylor alludes in the citation above.9 For instance, in his lectures of 1819, Hegel remarks that “what is actual becomes rational, and the rational becomes actual”.10 Hegel's postulation of a dynamic reciprocity between rationality and actuality does not legitimize the status quo so much as social change. This view is underscored in the Encyclopedia, where he explains that his approach is “opposed” to the “fancy that Ideas and ideals are something far too excellent to have actuality, or something too impotent to procure it for themselves”.11

Moreover, the conservative reading of Hegel's metaphilosophy is at odds with his discussion of the role of philosophy in other passages in his preface to PR, as well as in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History (PH) and his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (HP). In the introduction to HP, Hegel reiterates that the content of any philosophy is drawn from the preceding historical epoch, and that each philosophy is consequently a product of its time. Yet at the same time, each philosophy provides the critical transition that produces the new form of spiritual development characterizing the subsequent age. By grasping the essence of the preceding epoch, such a philosophy has already differentiated itself from that epoch. Thus, while it draws its content from the preceding age, Hegel remarks that it already stands above that epoch in form.

But if Philosophy does not stand above its time in content, it does so in form, because as the thought and knowledge of that which is the substantial spirit of its time, it makes that spirit its object … Through knowledge, Spirit makes manifest a distinction between knowledge and that which is; this knowledge is thus what produces a new form of development. The new forms at first are only special modes of knowledge, and it is thus that a new Philosophy is produced: yet since it already is a wider kind of spirit, it is the inward birth-place of the spirit which will later arrive at actual form.12

In its self-conscious comprehension of the preceding epoch, a philosophy is thus the inward act of conception that produces the new form of development. This new form begins as a mode of philosophical knowledge and arrives subsequently at actual form. In an early letter to Niethammer, Hegel underscores the active role that philosophy plays in social transformation: “Daily am I more and more convinced that theoretical work achieves more in the world than practical. Once the realm of ideas is revolutionised, actuality does not hold out.”13

Yet if philosophers play an active role in social transformation then how can it be reconciled with Hegel's statement of their limitations in his preface to PR? Is this a second count of inconsistency against his metaphilosophy? The difficulty appears to be confirmed by a passage at the close of the preface to PR:

One word about giving instructions as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy, in any case, always comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality is already there cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed. The teaching of the concept, which is also history's inescapable lesson, is that it is only when actuality is mature that the ideal first appears over against the real and that the ideal apprehends this same real world in its substance and builds it up for itself into the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.14

Philosophy, for Hegel, is the wisdom of historical maturity, and when an epoch finally produces a thinker to translate the essence of its actual life into the language of ideas, then that epoch has come to a close. Philosophy can only comprehend that which is, but in doing so it signifies the infirmity of the existing mode. When expression is finally given to that which lies at the heart of an historical actuality, then a form of life has grown old, for only that which is fully developed can be philosophically comprehended. Yet in the preceding passage from HP Hegel adds that this self-conscious comprehension of an historical epoch is also the first step in the transition to the age which follows. In both cases Hegel's historical claims are referred to his ontology, which he regards, in the passage above, as the deeper significance, or “lesson”, of history. Any interpretation of those claims must therefore consider the ontological foundation of his system.


In the preceding citation, the “teaching of the concept” involves the differentiation of the ideal from the real, and also the apprehension and subsumption of the latter within the former. How is the real both differentiated from and subsumed within the ideal?

For Hegel, a concept is not initially derived through a process of abstraction from a number of pre-existing particulars, but rather begins as a self-determining universal which is expressed, or manifested, throughout a multiplicity of particular events and experiences.15 The Hegelian concept, in other words, is active in determining its content. In various contexts this active self-determination is described by Hegel as the “form of the Idea” and as the “movement of the concept”. It is comparable to a movement since it often involves a sequence of expressions occurring as “moments” within a temporal process. In so far as it is determinate, each of these expressions is limited and is thus an incomplete expression of the concept. Red, for example, is a partial and incomplete manifestation of the concept of colour, since it can be determinately red only in so far as it excludes other colours. Similarly, the French Revolution is a moment in the concept of France. It is because each of its separate expressions is partial and inadequate that the concept must be expressed throughout a multiplicity, or a sequence, of particular determinations.16 The manifestation of that which is implicit in the concept is the basis for any sort of historical process. In Hegel's words “The movement of the Concept is development: by which that only is explicit which is already implicitly present.”17

According to Hegel, the concept is realized in each of its expressions. In so far as each part refers on beyond itself to the whole, the whole is implicit in every part, and every part encompasses the whole.18 Hegel goes so far as to say that the concept is “contained” within each of its particular manifestations.19 Since any particular colour is experienced only in so far as it contrasts with other colours, there is a sense in which my experience of any colour contains all the colours that I have experienced. Similarly, all of French history may be understood to be implicit within the French Revolution. In some sense, any historical event contains all of those events that caused it, along with all of those other events to which it gives rise. According to Hegel, the form of the Idea is the method, or structure, of self-containment, by which the universal totality is contained within each of its component parts, such that every part is an expression of the whole.20

A similar feature of self-containment characterizes Hegel's definition of the concept. In his words, “The concept … is a systematic whole, in which each of its constituent functions is the very total which the concept is, and is put as indissolubly one with it.”21 Since the whole is contained in each of its parts, the self-containment of the Idea is expressed in a principle of reciprocity whereby the whole which contains the parts is itself contained as a part within each of the parts that it contains. It is through this principle of self-containment and reciprocity that Hegel seeks to avoid the infinite progression of Fichtean philosophy.

In Reciprocity … the rectilinear movement out from causes to effects, and from effects to causes, is bent round and back into itself, and thus the progress ad infinitum of causes and effects is, as a progress, really and truly suspended. This bend … transforms the infinite progression into a self-contained relationship …22

Yet while the whole is implicit within each of its parts it cannot be overtly and entirely expressed in a single manifestation. Hence, the concept is impelled through a multiplicity of determinations. Because it is a combination of these mutually exclusive elements the concept may be regarded as inherently self-contradictory, and as consequently driven to express itself throughout manifold of particular expressions. The Hegelian universal is “self-negating” and negates or limits itself in each of its particular determinations. It limits itself as it differentiates itself into particulars, each of which is limited in so far as it is exclusive of the others.

In Hegel's words, the movement of the concept begins with a stage of “immediate unity” or undifferentiated universality, which negates, or differentiates, itself as an “other” of itself.23 Yet whereas this movement begins with an “immediate”, undifferentiated or abstract universality and passes through a stage of differentiation, it returns to a mediated or concrete universality, which incorporates those particular distinctions of the intermediate stage.24 The actualization of those potentials implicit in the opening phase of the concept depends upon this return from particularity to concrete universality, which Hegel also describes as individuality.25 Yet this return to concrete universality marks the beginning of a new phase of differentiation at the next stage of development. The concrete universality that results from the preceding stage is the abstract universality that determines itself in the next phase. “Its return to itself”, says Hegel, is also the “division of itself.”26 Still, he intends to avoid Fichtean difficulties in so far as the Idea is implicit in each of its determinations, and eternity is the pulse of the present. In Hegel's words, “The Idea itself is the dialectic which forever divides and distinguishes the self-identical from the differentiated, the subjective from the objective, the finite from the infinite … Only on these terms is it an eternal creation, eternal vitality, and eternal spirit.”27


Hegel's conception of concrete universality is applicable to a broad range of entities. It is illustrated, for example, whenever an individual observer reflects upon his experience and compares its particular components in order to abstract their universal features. In this respect, the actualization of the concept is closely connected with self-consciousness.

In an historical context, the concept corresponds to the spirit (Geist), or collective self-conception, of individuals in an historical epoch. It includes their values, ideals and aspirations within a general vision, or view of the world, which is expressed and realized in the activities that it inspires. Concrete universality eventually is achieved in a philosophical comprehension of this vision which also serves to indicate its inherent limitations.

I shall argue that Hegel understands the demarcation of an epoch to require (1) that the concept of an epoch should have been sufficiently articulated to allow for its philosophical comprehension; and (2) that this comprehension should provide at least an implicit indication of its inherent limitations. Thus an epoch is demarcated in so far as the limitations inherent in its concept have been developed to the level of philosophical expression. I understand Hegel to mean that the presence of philosophy is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the comprehension and demarcation of an historical epoch. Not every philosophy defines an epoch, but no epoch can be defined without a philosophical comprehension of its concept. Hegel's illustrations include Plato,28 whose political philosophy implicitly underscored the limitations of the polis, and Luther, whose foundation of Protestantism followed his publication of contradictions in sixteenth-century Catholicism.29

In the preceding passage from PR, the appearance of the ideal over against the real refers to a stage of differentiation and division that occurs in the development of the concept of an historical epoch. This contrast is not apparent to inhabitants of that age while they are struggling to realize their goals and to fulfil their vision of the world. During this time all their efforts are devoted to their struggle and they do not have the distance or perspective on themselves required for self-consciousness. Contradictions are not taken seriously because they have not yet proved fatal. It is assumed that they will find their solution within the vision of this epoch.

But as that vision is actualized, its contradictions are also developed. They mature along with it and become most prominent at the moment of its greatest success. This is what Hegel describes as the differentiation of the concept, since the latter has been realized through its expression in a diversity of particular events. At this point in the process, the concept is no longer an abstract ideal. Because it has now been realized in the world, its realization can now be distinguished from, and contrasted with, its previously visionary form. Hence, its inner imperfections and contradictions now become apparent.

Through the realization of these inherent limitations we achieve the perspective that is required for self-consciousness. By looking hard at what we have actually become we are distanced from our ideals and, for the first time, enabled to understand them fully. Prior to their actualization, these ideals corresponded with Hegel's notion of abstract universality, but in the course of their realization, they are differentiated and determined in such a way that we are able to recognize their limitations and to see them in their particularity.

At the same time, we are able to distance ourselves from our present reality by comparing it with our ideals. In recognizing the contradictions that exist between our ideals and our real situation, we overcome our myopia and fully understand that reality for the first time. We recognize what we have really accomplished only through the insufficiencies that separate it from what we had hoped to accomplish.

In accord with Hegel's doctrine of the concept, both aspects of this limitation are inevitable. The concept (universal or ideal) comes to be limited because it is self-negating and self-determining, and the limitations of these determinations follow from their particularity. Hence, we eventually recognize defects in the original vision as well as in its realization. Our philosophical task is the elevation of these limitations to consciousness.

It is only through the development of these difficulties that we finally become aware of the contrast between the ideal and the real. This seems to be what Hegel means, in the passage from PR, when he says that the ideal “appears over against the real”. The “ideal” refers to the preceding form of abstract universality which has undergone differentiation in the course of its realization, and now appears as a limited particular.

But in the same sentence, Hegel also uses the term “ideal” to refer to the new form of concrete universality that is achieved when these particulars are reunited in the philosophical assessment of the preceding epoch. This occurs when “the ideal apprehends this same real world in its substance and builds it up for itself into the shape of an intellectual realm.” In accord with Hegel's ontology, this philosophical comprehension is the concrete universality that eventually provides the concept for the next stage of development, and contributes to the derivation of its values and ideals. This is evidently what Hegel means when he writes, in the preceding passage from HP, that “this knowledge is thus what produces a new form of development”.

When considered in light of Hegel's doctrine of the concept, there is no inconsistency between the active role that is assigned to philosophy in HP and the limitations that are described in PR. Because philosophical self-consciousness is the product of contradictions in an existing mode of life, it cannot erase those contradictions and rejuvenate a dying culture. But it can, and necessarily does, lead to the birth of a new form. Within the process of this birth, philosophy is—to adopt a metaphor employed by an ancient associate of Minerva's owl—a kind of spiritual “midwife”. Since we achieve this self-consciousness only in the movement from one stage of development to the next, the comprehension of the ageing epoch is an important part in the transition to that which follows. The philosophical task of bringing these difficulties to the surface is the first step in the process of resolving and transcending them, which will be the task of the epoch that eventually follows. Philosophy's active role in heralding this new phase is emphasized by Hegel in PH.

In its active operations, the national spirit at first knows only the ends of its determinate reality, but not its own nature. But it is nevertheless endowed with an impulse to formulate its thoughts. Its supreme activity is thought, so that when it reaches the height of its powers, its aim is to comprehend itself. The ultimate aim of the spirit is to know itself, and to comprehend itself not merely intuitively but also in terms of thought. It must and will succeed in its task; but this very success is also its downfall, and this in turn heralds the emergence of a new phase and a new spirit.30

Self-consciousness with regard to one stage is achieved in the transition to the next. Knowledge plays an important role in this process since it is the source from which a higher form emerges, while the preceding spiritual form is both preserved and transformed within it. This point is made with greater force a few pages later when Hegel describes the dialectical development of spirit.

Its movement and progression do not repeat themselves, for the changing aspect of the spirit as it passes through endlessly varying forms is essentially progress. This progress is evident even when the national spirit destroys itself by the negativity of its thought, because its knowledge, its thinking apprehension of being is the source and matrix from which a new form and indeed a higher form, whose figure both conserves and transfigures it—emerges.31

In so far as it indicates the limitations inherent in the preceding world view, philosophical self-consciousness provides the motivation for the development of a new vision. The full articulation of the subsequent vision will be the task of the age that follows; it is not the task of the philosopher. Since the primary role of philosophy is to grasp the concept of the preceding age, a utopian philosophy is tantamount to a contradiction in terms; to the extent that it is utopian it is not philosophy but fiction.

Yet in grasping the spirit of his age, the philosopher implicitly indicates the essential nature of the limitations that are the cause, at once, of its decline and of its transition to the next. If it truly succeeds in comprehending the essence of its own time, a philosophy will thereby succeed in pointing beyond itself to the origins of the age which follows. It will not offer a utopian blueprint but, for the careful reader, it will provide an indication as to the general direction of future development.

The achievement of philosophical self-consciousness cannot rejuvenate the old actuality, but it can signal the direction which the new actuality must take. In grasping the fullest truth of the preceding epoch together with its inherent limitations, philosophy points to the work which must be accomplished in the next. It is these problems with which the subsequent vision must grapple, and the philosophical view resulting from the contradictions of the earlier epoch will tend to retain its prominence for as long as it takes this new view to form. As a candidate world view begins to take shape, its recognition will depend on its capacity to encompass and propose solutions to this same set of problems.


The conventional view of Hegel's conception of the role of philosophy derives largely from passages in the preface to PR wherein philosophy appears to be restricted to passivity and conservatism. This view is evidently inapplicable to passages in HP and PH that assign philosophy a more critical role. I have sought to show that the relevant passages in HP and PH can be reconciled with those in PR through a reinterpretation of Hegel's metaphilosophy that is founded upon his ontology. This reinterpretation finds support in other passages of PR. For example, at the end of that work, Hegel remarks that

The history of mind (Geist) is its own act. Mind is only what it does, and its act is to make itself the object of its own consciousness. In history its act is to gain consciousness of itself as mind, to apprehend itself in its interpretation of itself to itself. This apprehension is its being and its principle, and the completion of apprehension at one stage is at the same time the rejection of that stage and its transition to a higher stage. To use abstract phraseology, the mind apprehending this apprehension anew, or in other words, returning to itself again out of its rejection of this lower stage of apprehension, is the mind of the stage higher than that on which it stood in its earlier apprehension.32

The transition to the higher form of ethical life begins when the preceding set of institutions and laws is particularized in relation to philosophical self-consciousness. This occurs when the philosophical observer recognizes the limitations and contradictions inherent in the preceding form: “Such thinking does not remain stationary at the given, whether the given be upheld by the external positive authority of the state or the consensus homonym … [only] The unphilosophical heart takes the simple line of adhering with trustful conviction to what is publicly accepted as true …”33

Philosophy must penetrate beyond what is merely positive whether this be established political institutions or the doctrine of the church, to the underlying rationale and to the negativity or dynamic tension existing in the interrelation of the established forms. Because actuality is considered to be rational, philosophy must work beyond the mere fact of existence to the reason which underlies it. It may be the case that the truth of this inner rationale is considerably different from what it appears to be to the uncritical mind. Its philosophical revelation may then lead to the recognition of contradictions in existing arrangements, and to the changes that this recognition may eventually necessitate. But because philosophy has reason for its object, it must find these interconnections in reality and not in abstract, or utopian, thought. In observing that the world is thus accessible to our knowledge, Hegel is not saying that it is rational in any static, a priori sense, which would connote finality and quietism. Its rationality is rather historical, continuously evolving, and by exposing the underlying rationale, and the limitations inherent in a given historical period, philosophy participates in its continuing evolution. For Hegel, self-consciousness is not so much a condition as a dialectical process. Nothing is ever fully comprehended without being thereby transcended. We can never fully understand something without at the same time moving beyond it.

This point is illustrated, again in the preface to PR, through a discussion of Plato's philosophy. In his Republic, Plato is said to have captured the essence of the Greek polis and raised to an ideal level the institutions and manners that characterized actual Greek life. Though the Republic was not modelled after any single city, and while it criticized most existing city-states, it nevertheless represented a distillation of the basic ideals of the polis. Hegel remarks that “even Plato's Republic which passes proverbially as an empty ideal is in essence nothing but an interpretation of the nature of Greek ethical life”.34 This ideal encapsulation of the polis was, however, a mark of its decline since Plato could not have achieved his insight until this form of life had fully run its course. And in accord with Hegel's ontology, the obituary of the preceding epoch is a prologue for that which follows. Thus in finally comprehending the essence of the polis, Plato was already standing outside it. Hegel's words bear close attention, for they are indicative of his view that Plato comprehended the underlying contradictions of his age: “Plato was conscious that there was breaking into his own life in that time a deeper principle which could appear in it directly only as a longing still unsatisfied, and so only as something corrupting.”35

This was the principle of subjective freedom which would be developed throughout the Christian era. The immanent world revolution would require a change in human self-conception springing from Christian revelation and centring on the Christian doctrine of conscience. According to this doctrine moral worth would depend not simply on compliance with the law (since that would be merely Pharisaical) but on the conscientious acceptance of the law, along with the ensuing demand that the law must be a fulfilment of self-conscious conviction. From this point on, the law would no longer have the immediate objectivity (and timeless authority) which it enjoyed in the polis, but would instead be mediated through the subjective will.

This subjective longing was first expressed in the teachings of the Sophists, and it is underscored in the Republic in so far as Plato strives to suppress it. Through the severity of his attempt to restrict subjective freedom, Plato illuminated that principle as the challenge that fatally exceeded the capacity of the established order, and hence as the contradiction that was implicit within it from the start. The unreflective parochialism of the city-state was incapable of incorporating the universalism of the rational self-consciousness to which it gave rise. Beyond the limited effort of Socrates, Plato was the first to recognize that the difficulty lay in the rise of this subjectivism and its reconciliation with the traditional objective order. By means of its focus on this fundamental difficulty, Plato's philosophy thus provides an implicit indication of the cultural development that would occur subsequently in response to the problem. In Hegel's words:

This movement of the individual, this principle of subjective freedom, is sometimes ignored by Plato, and sometimes even intentionally disparaged, because it proved itself to be what had wrought the ruin of Greece; and he considers only how the state may best be organised, and not subjective individuality. In passing beyond the principle of Greek morality, which in its substantial liberty cannot brook the rise of subjective liberty, the Platonic philosophy at once grasps the above principle, and in so doing proceeds still farther.36

Throughout the form and method of Plato's work, Hegel is consequently able to locate certain basic information about the nature of subjectivity which would be fully revealed only through the subsequent course of world development. Private property, for example, was forbidden to Plato's ruling class. Hegel links this abolition of property to Plato's restriction of subjective freedom, thereby deriving an important insight as to the nature of this connection, a connection which would subsequently rise to new prominence, both in the development of social thought and in the formulation of Hegel's own political philosophy. It is through his possessions that an individual is able to express and realize himself,37 and in his attempt to restrict subjectivism, this is the difficulty that property presented for Plato. “Personal property”, says Hegel, “is a possession which belongs to me as a certain person, and in which my person as such comes into existence, into reality; on this ground Plato excludes it.”38

Hegel argues that Plato's Republic was a final effort at shoring up an ethos based on substantive, or objective, freedom. As a student of Socrates, Plato was aware of the failure of that ethos to meet the standards of subjective rationality; yet he could accommodate those demands only by means of a reason that served as a substantive principle informing every aspect of the political community. Hegel argues that this one-sided focus on objective freedom was the essential limitation of ancient rationality, a limitation that was revealed by Plato in so far as he could accept the rule of reason only in the form of the philosopher king. Plato could introduce reason into his state only by denying the exercise of subjective reason and freedom to all but the ruler. Yet while the polis was doomed by the contradiction of objective and subjective freedom, Plato was not completely aware of its ramifications. Instead, his efforts in the Republic reveal that contradiction most clearly for later readers, thereby lending that contradiction its rationally most comprehensible form.

Hegel remarks that Plato might have resolved the contradiction of the polis if he had been able to incorporate these claims in a new vision of Greek life: “To combat, he needs must have sought aid from that very longing itself.”39 But this would be the work of the next two millennia, and would encompass Hegel's own philosophy. In Hegel's view, Plato's philosophy successfully identified key limitations in the society of his day, an achievement of self-consciousness that was the first step in a long process of political transformation occurring in response to those limitations. The entire scope of this project was thus beyond Plato; yet Plato's analysis pointed, by way of its very opposition, to the significance of this new principle.

But this aid had to come from on high and all that Plato could do was to seek it in the first place in a particular external form of that same Greek ethical life … still his genius is proved by the fact that the principle on which the distinctive character of his state turns is precisely the pivot on which the impending world revolution turned at that time.40

The significance of this is seen in the influence that Platonism had in shaping Christian doctrine, and the lingering role that it played in the development of the Christian world for the next 1,500 years. Throughout this passage in his preface to PR, Hegel understands Plato to have grasped the essence of his age in such a way as to underscore its limitations, and to thereby have provided the first vague anticipation of the age that would follow.41 Thus there is a critical message hidden within Hegel's seemingly quietistic view of the relation of philosophy to actuality. The owl of Minerva may well spread its wings with the falling of the dusk, but it alights again at dawn, and those great leaps between each historical era are just as surely initiated through this reflective flight of the intellect. This interpretation derives support from Hegel's choice of Dämmerung, which means both “dusk” and “daybreak”.


Pointing out that, “this passage is not Hegel's appendix to Plato, but his preface to his own political philosophy”, Avineri speculates about the implications of this position for Hegel's own intellectual efforts.42 He observes that Hegel's ability to comprehend his own world would seem to point to its possible demise. We have seen how Hegel would have us understand the relation of his philosophical predecessors to the process of social development, but what is the role of his own philosophy?

It is commonly thought that Hegel saw his own philosophical system as the necessary culmination of all preceding philosophy, and that he believed himself to have attained an absolute truth beyond which philosophy could not proceed. However, a careful examination of HP shows that while this account of Hegel's self-assessment is partially correct, the conclusions drawn from it are often mistaken. Hegel did believe that his own philosophical system was the culmination of all preceding philosophy, and he did believe that he had grasped an absolute truth. But I shall argue that he did not see his work as a termination of all philosophical thought, nor did he doubt that the history of philosophy would continue to advance and develop itself in the same way that it had previously developed.

Hegel begins his introduction to HP by admonishing that we must not regard the history of philosophy “as dealing with the past”.43 The history of philosophy, he argues, is concerned with that which is present now and which is always present. In a similar way, “we are what we are through history”,44 and so that history is present in the form of our own activity. It is the “activity of free thought”45 that produces this transformation through history, and which survives, in our own endeavours, precisely through the transformation that it continues to receive. Each succeeding generation has the task of continuing the work of this historical transformation, and there is no end to the process:

This activity presupposes a material already present, on which it acts, and which it does not merely augment by the addition of new matter, but completely fashions and transforms … To receive this inheritance is also to enter upon its use … this legacy is degraded to a material which becomes metamorphosed by Mind. In this manner that which is received is changed, and the material worked upon is both enriched and preserved at the same time … This is the function of our own and every age: to grasp the knowledge which is already existing, to make it our own, and in so doing to develop it still further and to raise it to a higher level. In thus appropriating it we make it into something different from what it was before.46

Within this process of transformation, each succeeding world view is undermined and subsumed, and a truly self-conscious philosopher will have no illusions about the inevitability of this supersession. Hence Hegel's exhortation to all philosophers, present and future: “Behold the philosophy by which thine own will be refuted and displaced shall not tarry long as it has not tarried before.”47

Throughout its long history, this process has resulted in a great diversity of world views, but this diversity culminates neither in scepticism nor in an impotent relativism. It is not a merely random diversity, or a confused array of disconnected parts. Rather its multiplicity is “absolutely necessary to the existence of a science of philosophy.”48 We should not see the elements of this philosophical manifold as randomly opposed and merely exclusive of one another, but rather as systematically producing one another, and as leading to each other through the very process of their sequential opposition and transcendence. It is only because divergent philosophies address and actively transform one another that the history of philosophy may be considered as a process of development. Hegel insists that “those who believe the principle of diversity to be one absolutely fixed [static], do not know its nature or its dialectic; the manifold or diverse is in a state of flux; it must really be conceived of as in the process of development, and as but a passing moment”.49 Indeed, it becomes impossible to separate the notion of philosophy from this continuous process of its own transformation. “Thus”, says Hegel, “we see that philosophy is system in development.”50

In accord with the reciprocity inherent in the form of the Idea, this development is, at once, the history of philosophy and the history of civilization. Philosophers require the articulation and actualization of the concept in historical events, and social actors require philosophical insight into the limitations in existing arrangements. Hegel's metaphilosophy coincides with his views on the “cunning of reason” in so far as such actors may lack a clear and complete prognosis for the new world to which their actions contribute, but yet possess a sense of the contradictions and limitations inherent in existing arrangements, along with a general notion of what their transcendence will require. Whether or not they are philosophers themselves,51 these actors eventually must respond to the same contradictions that are the focus of philosophy.

In each of its stages, this process is expressed as the spirit of a particular age. This spirit is realized through the deeds, ideas, institutions and culture of that epoch, and is finally comprehended within a philosophical viewpoint characteristic of that period. Hegel compares the stages of this process to a “chain of spiritual development”52 in which each philosophical view provides a connection between the preceding age, whose essence it comprehends, and the succeeding era, which it anticipates and ushers in as it elevates the limitations of the preceding epoch to consciousness. Hence, none of these stages can be taken independently, for they are all moments cohering within this single continuing process. Each stage is born as the expression of a particular facet of the Idea, and dies in the process of passing on to the next.

Yet, as all of these forms spring from the unity of the Idea, so are they ultimately returned to this unitary ideality through our self-conscious comprehension of their interconnection. After the Idea has expressed itself in a number of these stages, it becomes possible for philosophers to examine the history of their transition, and to grasp philosophically the method or the structure which underlies their continuing development. And since all of these stages are expressions of the Idea, in coming to understand the underlying method of their development, we come to understand the Idea itself. That is, we come to understand the method of the process which underlies their transformation. The various stages of this development are returned to ideality (namely, concrete unity) when they are no longer perceived as merely random or diverse, but are comprehended within the focused unity of the philosopher's self-consciousness, as expressions of a single underlying movement—when they are comprehended as successive manifestations of the Idea. Hegel explains that

these forms are nothing else than the original distinctions in the Idea itself, which is what it is only in them. They are in this way essential to, and constitute the content of the Idea, which in thus sundering itself, attains to form … They are the determinations of the original Idea, which together constitute the whole, but as being outside one another, their union does not take place in them, but in us, the observers. Each system is determined as one, but it is not a permanent condition that the differences are thus mutually exclusive. The inevitable fate of these determinations must follow, and that is that they shall be drawn together and reduced to elements or moments. The independent attitude taken up by each moment is again laid aside. After expansion, contraction follows—the unity out of which they first emerged. This third may itself be but the beginning of a further development.53

The development of the Idea follows the movement of the concept. This movement begins from the unity of the abstract Idea and passes through a stage of particularization, which Hegel describes as the Idea “sundering itself”. This stage of differentiation may correspond to the contradictions developing in a culture as it approaches maturity, but since these parts are “determinations of the original Idea”, they implicitly retain “the unity out of which they first emerged”. This underlying unity reappears once again in the self-conscious comprehension of the method of their interconnection which is achieved by the philosophical “observer”. By carefully examining all of the forms which emerge in the history of philosophy, such an observer is finally able to understand the process through which they develop, and which provides for the birth and death of each. In understanding this process through which they develop, he comprehends their underlying unity, and through this achievement of self-consciousness, the philosophical observer may be said to return these divergent forms to their unity, or ideality, in the unity of individual cognition. This is no longer the immediate unity from which the development began, but rather a concrete self-conscious unity that incorporates the diverse stages of the development.

Now Hegel believed that through a careful analysis of all preceding philosophy, he (and all who understood him) had achieved this self-conscious ideality. Does this achievement mean that the process of development will necessarily come to an end? Clearly it does not, for as we see in the passage above, this stage is “but the beginning of a further development”. Nor does Hegel reconsider this view at the end of HP, for there we are assured that: “It goes ever on and on, because spirit is progress alone.”54 This progress is not only expressed through its diversity, but is also propelled and further developed through the contradictions and antagonisms existing between these different forms. Hegel reminds us that because the process is “inwardly opposed to itself it is inwardly working forever forward”.55

It is this methodical continuity of historical development that is eventually discovered by philosophical self-consciousness, a discovery in which it comprehends the method of its own progression from one historical epoch to another, and thereby achieves consciousness of itself as this process of historical development. With this realization, philosophy becomes truly self-conscious. All previous forms of philosophy represented particular forms of self-consciousness. Each successive historical epoch, each national spirit, gave rise to its own form of philosophy which represented its conscious comprehension of itself in terms of its innermost essence. However, after a sufficient number of these periods have transpired, it becomes possible to understand the process which underlies the development of them all. When the philosopher self-consciously grasps the dialectical method that provides the underlying continuity of the history of philosophy, then philosophy is no longer limited to a particular object of reflection, such as the ethos of Greece or the spirit of the Enlightenment, but is rather conscious of itself as this universal historical process which runs throughout the rise and fall of all historical epochs. When philosophy, as in the case of Hegel's metaphilosophy, comes to understand itself, not in the form of any particular philosophy, and not in the form of a merely static, or disconnected, diversity of opposing philosophies, but rather as this active process of its own development, then philosophy achieves self-consciousness. In Hegel's words, “Philosophy has now become for itself the apprehension of this development … in Thought.”56 Thus, Hegel's philosophy itself expresses the self-containment of the Idea in that it is, on the one hand, a particular component of the history of philosophy, while on the other hand, it comprehends that same history and distils the method of its development.

This self-consciousness of the historical development of self-consciousness is described by Hegel as absolute or philosophical self-consciousness. It is the knowledge of philosophy that is achieved in the form of the Hegelian system; yet the achievement of this absolute self-consciousness evidently does not mean that this process of historical development comes to an end. Absolute self-consciousness, I shall argue, is not a terminal truth we achieve at the end of the process so much as a knowledge of the method according to which the process will continue. On this view, Hegelian philosophy does not mark the point at which the process stops, but the point from which it proceeds self-consciously. It marks the point at which philosophical consciousness becomes conscious of itself, not as any one of its particular forms but rather as the universal process of its own development.

Preceding philosophies have provided for the transition between particular historical periods; yet all of these transitions have occurred within a specific tradition.57 In its comprehension of the underlying method of this process, Hegelian philosophy becomes a component within a transition of a different magnitude. The comprehension of the tradition as a whole implies a transcendence of the entire tradition of thought, together with its characteristic categories and problem sets. This would suggest a correlation between the role that Hegel assigns to philosophy in later works, such as HP,PH and PR, and his understanding of the significance of his own philosophy in his earlier works.


Many commentators have regarded Hegel as undergoing a personal transformation from youthful idealism and utopian dreams to a conservative pessimism. On one account, the young Hegel, who was “brought up on the republican theorising of Montesquieu and Rousseau”, and who found in the French Revolution “an attempt to recreate conditions of polis democracy”, was frustrated by the Revolution's failure to recover an earlier form of ethical harmony and “was led to a more subtle appreciation of the opportunities afforded by modernity”.58 According to another commentator, Hegel gradually relinquished his early passion for political freedom and sought spiritual fulfilment in speculative knowledge instead of human community.59 On still another view, Hegel's zealously transformative “philosophy of youth” settled into a politically pragmatic “philosophy of manhood” before finally sinking into “a philosophy of old age” that “detaches itself from opposition to particular objects or persons and withdraws into a harmonious relation to the universal precepts distilled from past experience of opposition.”60

Yet, on the strength of his analysis of Hegel's recently published lectures on the Rechtsphilosphie, Tunick concludes that this view is “mistaken” and doubts that there “is any difference between the political philosophies of the early and late Hegel”.61 Similarly, Ritter maintains that: “The youthful enthusiasm for the Revolution, which stands at the beginning of the philosophical path in Hegel's case, enters into his philosophy itself and continues on alive in its mature cast. His philosophy remains in the true sense a philosophy of revolution in that it proceeds from it and draws life from it till the last.”62 Ritter's interpretation is consistent with Hegel's view of philosophy as grasping the rational essence of its age and as thereby anticipating subsequent developments.63 Similarly, Brod observes that the original title of PR is Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts oder Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse (Outlines of the Philosophy of Right or Natural Law and Political Science in Outline). He suggests that

Standing near the beginning of the first fully rational, self-conscious political period in history, it is only the basic principles, the outlines, of the universal rational state that are visible. The details of that outline have yet to be developed historically. Hegel's political philosophy, then, fills in this outline as well and fully as possible, given the material historically at hand. This is not a departure from Hegel's philosophical methodology, because his political rationalism is committed to the proposition that there is material at hand in the present historical epoch to rationally fill out this basic framework—that there is a rose in the cross of the present. At the same time, although the basic outline must hold good for all time, there is nothing to preclude the possibility that future developments will provide better institutional instantiations for these basic conceptions than those recommended in the Philosophy of Right.64

If Brod is correct then Hegel's understanding of his own political philosophy is not only compatible with his assessment of Plato's, but is consistent with his metaphilosophy as a whole. Interpretations of the political philosophies of Plato and Hegel traditionally have presented similar enigmas. Are they fundamentally conservative enterprises supporting the status quo; are they quasi-apologetic rationalizations of existing arrangements; or are they concerned with ideal states? On the present view, Hegel understood his own political philosophy much as he understood Plato's, as grasping the rational essence of the political institutions of his age and as thereby providing an anticipation of subsequent political development. Hence, it is not philosophical self-consciousness so much as meta-philosophical self-consciousness that distinguishes Hegel from Plato. Hegel is aware that this is what he is doing.

This view is consistent with the preceding interpretation of Hegel's metaphilosophy drawn from HP,PH,PR and supported by his logic. These works reflect Hegel's mature views; yet their conception of philosophy as providing an anticipation of subsequent cultural development is compatible with the programmatic depictions of his own philosophical project that are found in his early works. In his preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, for example, Hegel remarks that

it is not difficult to see that ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labour of its own transfiguration. Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward.65

Hegel understood his philosophy as grasping the essence of its tradition, and as thereby indicating the emergence of a new age of self-conscious human existence. He regarded his philosophy not as the termination, but as the threshold, of this new age, and the beginning of its further development. In his own time, he explains,

This new world is no more a complete actuality than is a new-born child; it is essential to bear this in mind. It comes on the scene for the first time in its immediacy or its concept. Just as little as a building is finished when its foundation has been laid, so little is the achieved concept of the whole the whole itself … So too, science, the crown of a world spirit is not complete in its beginnings. The onset of the new spirit is the product of a widespread upheaval in various forms of culture … but the actuality of this simple whole consists in those various shapes and forms which have become its moments, and which will now develop and take afresh, this time in their new element, in their newly acquired meaning.66

This new world view, still hazy and embryonic in Hegel's historical analysis, is purportedly a world view which embraces the development of all world views in so far as it describes the methodical progression from each paradigm to the next. It is a view of reality as a process of rational development together with the first vague insights as to the specific dynamism and structure of that process. This is the principle of self-containment which is central to Hegel's philosophy and its message to the age which follows. However incipient and obscure, it is the heart of Hegel's thought, just as subjective freedom was the implicit focus of Plato's. And if it is often obscure, then perhaps criticism should be measured in terms of Hegel's satisfaction of his own metaphilosophical standard. Through his analysis of the preceding tradition he has sought to point the way toward the development of a new Weltanschauung. According to Hegel, it is the task of a philosophy to provide only this general indication, and not to furnish a precise and explicit blueprint for future development. Referring to his own philosophy, he admits that “the initial appearance of the new world is, to begin with only the whole veiled in its simplicity or the foundation of the whole”.67

In the final speech of his 1806 lectures at Jena, at the time that he was writing his first mature work, Hegel remarks that his generation stands at the threshold of a new age of spiritual development. It is an historical transition marked by the collapse of all those categories and presuppositions that characterize the tradition of Western thought, and while “others” cling to the past, it is a transition which first must be heralded by philosophy.

We stand at the gates of an important epoch, a time of ferment, when spirit has gone beyond its previous concrete form and acquired a new one. The whole mass of ideas and concepts that have been current until now, the very bonds of the world, are dissolving and collapsing like a vision in a dream. A new phase of spirit is at hand; philosophy must be the first to hail its appearance and recognise it, while others, who oppose it impotently, cling to the past.68


  1. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, p. 11.

  2. Haym, Vorlesung uber Hegel und seine Zeit, p. 359.

  3. Ibid., p. 365.

  4. See Avineri, pp. 99, 234-8; R. Berki, “Perspectives in the Marxian critique of Hegel's political philosophy”, in Pelczynski, ed., Hegel's Political Philosophy: problems and perspectives, p. 200; Findlay, Hegel: A Re-examination, p. 345; G. Heiman, “The source and significance of Hegel's corporate doctrine”, in Pelczynski, pp. 111-12; Smith, Hegel's Critique of Liberalism: Rights in Context, pp. 222-3; D. P. Verne, “Hegel's account of war”, in Pelczynski, p. 170.

  5. Charles Taylor, Hegel, p. 425.

  6. See Brod, Hegel's Philosophy of Politics; Houlgate, Freedom, Truth and History; Ritter, Hegel and the French Revolution; Tunick, Hegel's Political Philosophy; Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought.

  7. Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts: Die Vorlesung von 1819/20 in einer Nachschrift, Henrich ed.; Hegel, Vorlesungen uber Rechtsphilosophie (1818-1831), Karl-Heinz Ilting, ed.

  8. Dieter Henrich, “Vernunft in Verwirklichkung”, Introduction in G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts: Die Vorlesung von 1819/20 in einer Nachschrift, Dieter Henrich, ed.

  9. Tunick, Hegel's Political Philosophy, p. 9.

  10. Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts: Die Vorlesung von 1819/20 in einer Nachschrift, Dieter Henrich, ed., p. 51.

  11. Hegel, Logic, §6.

  12. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 54-5 (emphasis added).

  13. Hegel to Niethammer, 28 October 1808, Briefe von und an Hegel, J. Hoffmeister, ed., pp. 253-4.

  14. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, pp. 12-13.

  15. Hegel, Logic, §163.

  16. Hegel, Science of Logic, vol. 2, p. 244.

  17. Hegel, Logic, §161.

  18. Ibid., §160.

  19. Hegel, Science of Logic, vol. 2, p. 240.

  20. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 28.

  21. Hegel, Logic, §160.

  22. Ibid., §154.

  23. Hegel, Science of Logic, vol. 2, p. 233.

  24. Ibid., pp. 234-5.

  25. Ibid., pp. 234-5, 255.

  26. Ibid., pp. 257, 235; see Hegel, Logic, §165.

  27. Hegel, Logic, §214.

  28. See Hegel, Philosophy of Right, p. 10; Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2, pp. 98-9, 109, 111.

  29. See Hegel, The Philosophy of History, pp. 412-27.

  30. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, p. 56.

  31. Ibid., p. 61.

  32. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §343 (emphasis added).

  33. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Preface, p. 3.

  34. Ibid., p. 10.

  35. Ibid.

  36. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2, p. 109 (emphasis added).

  37. See Michael Inwood, “Hegel, Plato and Greek ‘Sittlichkeit’”, Pelczynski, The State and Civil Society, p. 51.

  38. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2, p. 111.

  39. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Preface, p. 10.

  40. Ibid. (emphasis added).

  41. For further discussion of Hegel's interpretation of Plato see Chapter 4. Also see Browning, “Plato and Hegel: reason, redemption and political theory”; “The night in which all cows are black: ethical absolutism in Plato and Hegel”; “Hegel's Plato: the owl of Minerva and a fading political tradition”; Findlay, “Hegelianism and Platonism”, in O'Mally, Algozin and Weiss (eds), Hegel and the History of Philosophy; Hardimon, Hegel's Social Philosophy: The Project of Reconciliation; Inwood, “Hegel, Plato and Greek ‘Sittlichkiet’”, in Pelczynski, The State and Civil Society.

  42. Avineri, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, p. 129.

  43. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 38.

  44. Ibid., p. 2.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Ibid., p. 3.

  47. Ibid., p. 17.

  48. Ibid., p. 19.

  49. Ibid., p. 34.

  50. Ibid., p. 29.

  51. Among Hegel's recurring examples of world historical actors, Socrates and (arguably) Luther were philosophers; Caesar and Napoleon were not; Alexander had tuition.

  52. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 45.

  53. Ibid., pp. 34-5.

  54. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 546.

  55. Ibid., p. 547.

  56. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p. 27.

  57. Though Hegel saw Asian philosophy as leading to the development of Western philosophy, his idea of a philosophical tradition was typically Eurocentric, and he lacked a comprehensive knowledge of non-Western philosophies.

  58. Smith, Hegel's Critique of Liberalism, p. 12.

  59. Yak, The Longing for Total Revolution.

  60. Butler, “Introduction”, in Hegel: The Letters, pp. 16-18.

  61. Tunick, Hegel's Political Philosophy, p. 93. Indeed, Tunick and Ilting consider the possibility that due to censorship and other constraints the lecture notes on the Philosophy of Right may provide a more accurate account of Hegel's political views than his published work. See Tunick pp. 7-10.

  62. Ritter, Hegel and the French Revolution: Essays on the Philosophy of Right, p. 59.

  63. Ibid., pp. 62-72.

  64. Brod, Hegel's Philosophy of Politics, p. 162.

  65. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 6.

  66. Ibid., p. 7.

  67. Ibid.

  68. Hegel, lecture of 18 September 1806, Dokumente zu Hegel's Entwicklung, ed. J. Hoffmeister, p. 352.

Selected Bibliography

Avineri, S. Hegel's Theory of the Modern State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Brod, H. Hegel's Philosophy of Politics. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1992.

Findlay, J. Hegel: A Re-examination, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Hardimon, M. Hegel's Social Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Haym, R. Vorlesung uber Hegel un seine Zeit. Berlin: Rudolf Gaertner, 1857.

Hegel, G. Briefe von und an Hegel, Hoffmeister ed., Hamburg: Meiner, 1952.

———. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part One, Logic, Wallace trans., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

———. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part Two, The Philosophy of Nature, Miller trans., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

———. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part Three, The Philosophy of Mind, Miller trans., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

———. Hegel: The Letters, Butler and Seiler trans., Bloomington, in: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

———. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Haldane and Simson trans., New York: Humanities Press, 1974.

———. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, Nisbet trans., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

———. The Phenomenology of Spirit, Miller trans., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

———. The Philosophy of Right, Knox trans., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

———. Philosophie des Rechts: Die Vorlesung von 1819/20 in einer Nachschrift, Henrich, D. ed., Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983.

———. Science of Logic, Johnston and Struthers trans., New York: Humanities Press, 1966.

———. Vorlesung uber Rechtsphilosophie (1818-1831), Ilting, ed., Stuttgart: Frommann Verlag, 1974.

Houlgate, S. Freedom, Truth and History. London: Routledge, 1991.

Pelczynski, Z. ed. Hegel's Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

——— ed. The State and Civil Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Ritter, J. Hegel and the French Revolution: Essays on the Philosophy of Right. Cambridge, ma: 1984.

Smith, S. Hegel's Critique of Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Taylor, C. Hegel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Tunick, M. Hegel's Political Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Wood, A. Hegel's Ethical Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Yak, B. The Longing for Total Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Elliot L. Jurist (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Jurist, Elliot L. “Introduction.” In Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche: Philosophy, Culture, and Agency, pp. 1-13. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000.

[In the following introduction to his comparative study of Nietzsche and Hegel, Jurist outlines the main points of his book, which generally argues that there are important areas of agreement between the ideas of the two philosophers.]

From the perspective of mainstream philosophical culture, Hegel and Nietzsche both exemplify the superfluousness of nineteenth-century philosophy. Within the Continental tradition, on the other hand, Hegel and Nietzsche are typically juxtaposed as opposites in terms of their basic philosophical commitments, their styles, and even their life experiences. Indeed, one could argue that Hegel and Nietzsche are the two foundational figures of Continental philosophy, and, furthermore, that their legacy endures in that twentieth-century Continental philosophers can be classified, more or less, as Hegelians or Nietzscheans.1

One can discern the opposition between Hegelians and Nietzscheans by comparing critical theory, which has a strong Hegelian influence, and poststructuralism, which has a strong Nietzschean influence. Critical theorists and poststructuralists alike, however, affirm the juxtaposition of Hegel and Nietzsche as philosophical opposites. For instance, Habermas (1987, p. 120) claims that Hegel is Nietzsche's “great antipode” and warns against “Nietzscheanisms of all kinds” (1983, p. 253), while Deleuze (1983, pp. 8-9, 195) asserts that “there is no compromise between Hegel and Nietzsche” and Derrida (1985, pp. 23, 59) refers to “hand-to-hand combat between Hegel and Nietzsche.”2 The ready acceptance of a fundamental difference between Hegel and Nietzsche constitutes, ironically enough, a rare point of agreement between Habermas and these contemporary French thinkers.

This book has its origins in a certain uneasiness with the conception of Hegel and Nietzsche as philosophical opposites. There are clearly grounds for contrasting Hegel and Nietzsche, but this should not lead us to neglect the areas of consensus between them. Nor should we ignore the possibility, where their views seem to be at odds, of finding a way to render their views as complementary. My aim, simply stated, will be to place Hegel and Nietzsche in conversation with each other. This will entail paying attention to where they disagree as well as to where they agree, though the business of establishing differences and likenesses is not what is ultimately important. Resisting the customary antinomy, I aspire to probe their deepest philosophical motivations and to reassess their relationship in a way that preserves rather than diminishes its complexity. To a large degree I will be immersed in the exploration of nineteenth-century texts, yet I will be mindful of how the works have been read and used. Therefore, I will be as concerned with interpretations of Hegel and Nietzsche as with specifying their views.

Before articulating my perspective further, let me briefly describe some of the reasons why Hegel and Nietzsche have been perceived as opposites.

A major divide between Hegel's and Nietzsche's philosophies is found in the legacy of the Enlightenment: whereas Hegel valorizes reason and knowledge, Nietzsche gives primacy to the irrational and exhibits some skepticism toward knowledge.3 A closely related issue is whether modernity is worth salvaging, as Hegel believed, or whether it is to be despaired about, as Nietzsche contended. Hegelians assess modernity as problematic and oppressive but not hopeless; Nietzscheans tend to see it as dislocating and pathological, and thus to raise the specter of a new (postmodern) era.

Another perceived contrast between Hegel and Nietzsche has to do with Hegel's communitarian sympathies and Nietzsche's preference for an “aristocratic radicalism” in which individuals hold themselves above any community and have the strength to create values for themselves. All Hegelians—regardless of whether they are in the tradition of right or left Hegelians—exhibit serious concern about society and its institutions. Nietzscheans gravitate to the edge of society and are tempted by what lies below and beyond. Nietzsche's perspectivism is designed in part to undermine or at least to question the value of any kind of communitarian vision.

Hegel and Nietzsche are often understood, too, as holding contrasting views about the relation between philosophy and art. Hegel defends philosophy as a superior form of articulation, devaluing art for its reliance on an external and sensuous medium. While Hegel acknowledges that art and philosophy are both valid as human efforts to represent Spirit [Geist], he does not hesitate to conclude that philosophy accomplishes its end in a way that has rendered art less necessary. Nietzsche celebrates art as providing justification for life itself, condemning philosophy as clumsy and intrusive in comparison. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche illustrates the harmful effect philosophy had on art, especially on tragedy. Yet Nietzsche does not simply reject philosophy. He seeks to transform philosophy to have a new, playful incarnation. Therefore, it is most perspicuous to think of Nietzscheans as attempting to remake philosophy in the image of art.

Certainly, Hegel and Nietzsche exhibit radically different philosophical styles. Hegel beckons us to endure “the strenuous labor of the concept” in order to complete the journey to knowledge (PhS, p. 35).4 Nietzsche hypothesizes that the best way to deal with the deepest philosophical problems is like taking a cold bath: “quickly into them and quickly out again” (GS n381; BGE n295). There is something predictable and obsessive about Hegel's philosophy: propagated in systematic form, it shows the subject struggling, but marching inexorably to attain certainty. Nietzsche invites philosophers to become followers of Dionysus and to learn how to dance (GS n381). His aphoristic style is marked by spontaneity, unconventionality, and even contradiction: it is an appropriate vehicle for displaying the decentered subject.

Hegel does not speak of himself in his philosophical works. He excludes himself as a matter of discretion, but also because of his wish to identify with the ideal of a universal subject. No doubt, too, Hegel, the person, might have diminished the system, revealing, so to speak, the Wizard of Oz behind the curtains. Nietzsche maintains that the realm of the personal is present, but usually concealed, within a philosopher's work. He argues, therefore, that we ought to contend with the personal (more precisely, the relationship between the personal and the theoretical) as a bona fide philosophical topic. Nietzsche's last work, Ecce Homo, is unnerving in part because of how intensely personal it is. As Nietzsche declares in one of his Nachgelassene Fragmente: “My writings speak only from my own experiences [Erlebnissen]—happily I have experienced [erlebt] much—: I am in them with body and soul.” (SW 12, p. 232)

The notable contrast in the styles of Hegel and Nietzsche has a parallel in their respective lives and careers. Hegel's career got off to a slow start; he was considered inferior to the younger Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and he spent a number of years without a university position. Eventually, Hegel became a renowned philosopher, occupying Johann Gottlieb Fichte's chair of philosophy in Berlin, growing more conservative politically, joining the company of the elite in Prussian society, and enjoying his family and a large circle of friends and students. Nietzsche, on the other hand, began his career in a blaze of glory, becoming a professor at the age of 24. Nietzsche's work as a philologist became controversial with his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, and as his health problems mounted he began to remove himself from his academic position at the University of Basel. Nietzsche's fate was to become a lonely, itinerant philosopher. When he went mad, his philosophical works were just starting to become known throughout Europe; however, Nietzsche was deprived of recognition such as Hegel ultimately received in his lifetime.

In one of the most influential writings on the contrast between Hegel and Nietzsche, the 1941 book From Hegel to Nietzsche, Karl Löwith concludes that Hegel was the last great metaphysician and Nietzsche the first anti-metaphysician.5 According to Löwith, Christianity is the crucial divide between Hegel's affirmation of the metaphysical tradition and Nietzsche's new beginning. This point of view is plausible, but it does not necessarily allow for the most fruitful exploration of their respective philosophies. Other scholars, including Walter Kaufmann, Daniel Breazeale, and Stephen Houlgate, have made valuable contributions to our understanding of the relationship between Hegel and Nietzsche by articulating parallels in their metaphysics and epistemology.6

My treatment of the relationship between Hegel and Nietzsche builds on these predecessors, but I pursue a new direction. I focus on the psychological sensibility that informs Hegel's and Nietzsche's philosophical projects, and I pay especially close attention to the theme of agency, which is crucial in their respective attempts to imagine satisfied human lives. In taking this angle, I have been inspired by those philosophers who have shown reluctance to accept Hegel and Nietzsche as opposites. On the critical-theory side, Horkheimer and Adorno (1986, p. 44) argue that “Nietzsche was one of the few after Hegel who recognized the dialectic of enlightenment.” Even though Hegel and Nietzsche might occupy different poles in the dialogue of reason and unreason, Horkheimer and Adorno appreciate that both thinkers engage that dialogue. Indeed, they try to incorporate both Hegel and Nietzsche in arguing against vindicating rationality by forsaking irrationality. For Adorno in particular, philosophy must benefit from the example of psychoanalysis, which affirms the inescapability of irrationality without dismissing rationality

On the French side, Georges Bataille (1985, p. 219) writes that “Nietzsche is to Hegel what a bird breaking its shell is to a bird contentedly absorbing the substance within.” Bataille's point, it would seem, is that Nietzsche is an advance over Hegel—quite literally, a birth takes place with the shattering of the protective but enclosed and confining (metaphysical) egg. Yet, in intimating that Nietzsche's philosophy represents progress over Hegel's, Bataille acknowledges the period of gestation as well as the birth, thus confirming a developmental, organic link between Hegel and Nietzsche.7 I infer that it is misguided to look back to Hegel by displacing Nietzsche (as Adorno emphasizes), but that it is equally undesirable to embrace Nietzsche by ignoring that his philosophy unfolds from Hegel (as Bataille reveals).8 This insight serves as a guide for my study.

In chapter 1, I develop the idea that according to Hegel and Nietzsche philosophy is integrally related to culture. More specifically, I contend that both thinkers agree that philosophy is a product of culture and also that philosophy ought to be a response to culture. Hegel and Nietzsche distance themselves from the foundational myth of modern philosophy, the Cartesian myth, which (unwittingly or not) places a wedge between philosophical culture and the rest of culture. Although Hegel does not revile philosophy, as Nietzsche does, we can uncover a parallel between them in terms of what I call “the psychology of knowledge.” The psychology of knowledge offers an alternative paradigm to epistemology in demanding that we concern ourselves with the confluence between knowledge and human well-being.

In chapter 2, I engage the philosophical conceptions of culture in Hegel and Nietzsche. I delineate three senses of culture: as customs, as Bildung, and as self-fathoming. Hegel and Nietzsche concur that customs represent an antiquated sense of culture that is at odds with individual self-expression, although Hegel is characteristically less vehement than Nietzsche on this subject. Both thinkers also use the nature/culture distinction in order to affirm that culture ought not be regarded simply as the negation of nature; culture moves beyond nature by being inclusive of it. Hegel and Nietzsche regard Bildung as a necessary form of training which is directed to our subjective experience. They distinguish true and false versions of Bildung, endorsing the former in terms of fostering a dynamic kind of agency. Yet both philosophers also express reservations about the ideal of Bildung. As they see it, there is a need to conceptualize a new meaning of culture, which I term “self-fathoming.” While the first two senses of culture are well-grounded in Hegel's and Nietzsche's writing, the third sense is admittedly more speculative on my part. Self-fathoming denotes our particular plight in modernity where a disparity opens up between the objective space of customs and the subjective space of Bildung. This places a new and difficult burden on us. Self-fathoming is not a matter of looking within; it involves a more elaborate inquiry regarding how we have come to think of ourselves in the way we do. In particular, self-fathoming requires that we face up to self-misunderstanding, self-deception, and self-thwarting. Self-fathoming is prompted by the wish to confront the dissatisfaction of modern culture and coincides with the philosophical challenge of embracing the psychology of knowledge.

In chapter 3, I address Hegel's and Nietzsche's views of ancient Greek culture. As they see it, Greek culture represents a contrast to modern culture in being healthy and providing satisfaction to its citizens. Yet neither Hegel nor Nietzsche is content with idealizing the Greeks. Both affirm that we can and should learn from the Greeks but warn against nostalgically looking to the past as a way to absolve ourselves from dealing with the present. My chapter turns upon Hegel's and Nietzsche's distinct perspectives on Greek tragedy as a means of grasping Greek culture. Hegel sees tragedy as affirming the institutions of society, whereas Nietzsche views tragedy as affirming life in the face of the abyss of meaningless. For Hegel, the spectator is addressed qua citizen; for Nietzsche, the spectator is addressed qua human being. Nonetheless, both Hegel and Nietzsche regard tragedy as the means by which Greek culture raised fundamental questions about itself. Tragedy is equally compelling for Hegel and Nietzsche; not only do both see it as a source for the psychology of knowledge and self-fathoming, but they incorporate it in their respective philosophical projects.

In chapter 4, I examine Hegel's and Nietzsche's critique of modern culture and consider their influence on Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, and Heidegger. I argue that there are some significant points of convergence between Hegel and Nietzsche in the analysis of what is wrong with modern culture: the failure to provide satisfaction is a result of a division in self-identity, and the corresponding premium that comes to be placed on subjectivity leads to the devaluing of what lies outside it. Furthermore, Nietzsche follows Hegel in noting the ascension of usefulness as a dominant criterion of value in modern culture. For Nietzsche, though, usefulness is linked to the ascendance of science as a cultural ideal. This reminds us that any account of the differences between Hegel and Nietzsche must acknowledge changes that took place in their respective eras. Nietzsche's conclusions about modern culture are more negative than Hegel's: alienation has turned into despair. Yet his despair must be contextualized. It is true that Nietzsche refrains from any global solution to the crisis of modern culture. His sense of disappointment is keener, and he is more insistent that we ought not avoid negative affects, such as anger and sadness, that are generated by modernity. Nietzsche assesses modern culture as hopeless, but he is not hopeless about agency as a means of resisting it. Like Hegel, Nietzsche offers a rescription of agency as a way to overcome the dissatisfaction of modern culture.

In part II of the book, Hegel and Nietzsche have more of an opportunity to speak without interruption. The main focus is on their respective understandings of human agency. The chapters in this part are shorter than those in part I. In chapter 5, I begin with some general reflections on the meaning of human agency. I distinguish between persons and agents, and I turn to Charles Taylor's genealogical account of the latter. I pay special attention to how Hegel and Nietzsche fit within Taylor's schema. Using Taylor's terms, I argue that Hegel attempts to integrate both “self-objectivation” (the scientific project of self-investigation) and “self-exploration” (the artistic project linked to expressivism), whereas Nietzsche affirms the latter but is ambivalent about the former. Although Nietzsche is dubious about utilizing the language of science and objectivity, he does value “self-control.” In subsequent chapters, I explore in more detail what Hegel and Nietzsche mean by agency: in chapter 6-9 I take up Hegelian agency, and in chapters 10-13 I pursue Nietzschean agency.

Chapter 6 concerns Hegel's concept of recognition. The concept of recognition serves as Hegel's proposed solution to the crisis of modern culture; it also provides a basis for clarifying his theory of agency. Recognition is conceived as specifying a bond that deepens the sense of connection among members of society and thereby heals the split between the individual and society. Recognition harks back to the bond fostered by the polis, although it sustains rather than eclipses individuality. I distinguish the socio-political and epistemological functions of recognition, and I demonstrate, in particular, that recognition must be linked to the main theme of the Phenomenology of Spirit: self-knowledge. As I see it, it is crucial to appreciate that recognition includes self-recognition. Two specific aspects of self-recognition are distinguished: the self as socially constituted and the self as self-identical. The latter contains a further distinction between “being-for-itself” and “being-for-another.” Hegel's theory of agency hinges on the integration of our self-concern (being-for-itself) with our concern for others (being-for-another). Borrowing psychoanalytic terms, one could say that human agency entails an integration of narcissism and relatedness. For Hegel, such an integrated sense of agency is a prerequisite for social integration. In that chapter I also discuss the relation between recognition and several other basic Hegelian concepts: cognition, satisfaction, experience, and desire.

In chapters 7 and 8, I offer a close reading of Hegel's concept of recognition in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel's declaration in the Self-Consciousness chapter that self-consciousness attains “satisfaction” only in relating to another (PhS, p. 110) is a demand for a fundamental revision of epistemology and thus of modern philosophy itself. I trace the failed initial attempt at modernizing the concept of recognition in the Self-Consciousness chapter to the “internal” recognition in the Reason chapter, and then on to socio-historical developments, such as “natural and ethical” recognition in ancient Greece, “legal” recognition in ancient Rome, and the hope for “mutual” recognition that emerges from the Enlightenment and from Kant's moral philosophy. I show that Hegel's psychological discourse is sustained throughout PhS, coexisting with the louder voices of science, system, and the authority of reason. Hegel revises philosophy in order to contend with the dissatisfaction he detects in modern culture; the project of recollecting the vicissitudes of agency culminates in an ameliorated sense of agency that is designed to foster satisfaction in the future.

In chapter 9, I explore Hegelian agency more broadly. I reflect on Alexandre Kojève's appropriation of recognition, which distorts Hegel's actual view but which encourages us to reflect on what Hegel means by satisfaction and agency. In particular, Kojève's reading highlights desire as the backdrop to the concept of recognition. Next I examine recent reinterpretations of Hegel in the works of Axel Honneth and Jessica Benjamin, both of whom recast recognition to emphasize the intersubjective basis of agency and introduce psychoanalysis in this connection. Finally, I offer my own reading, which is indebted to Honneth and Benjamin but which gives more expression to some of the tensions between narcissism and mutual recognition. A psychoanalytic reading of Hegel brings out the crucial intersubjective element in his conception of agency and helps us to discern what remains viable in his thinking about recognition.

In chapter 10, I begin to unpack Nietzsche's idea of agency. I argue that his regarding agency as comprising multiple components does not negate the possibility of integration. I maintain that four factors delineate what Nietzsche means by integrated agency: accepting narcissism as the source of motivation, acknowledging the demands of the body (especially instincts), avowing affects, and defining oneself in relation to the past. Ultimately, Nietzsche regards integrated agency as entailing coherence and determination, but not transparency or unity. Since it is obviously controversial to ascribe to Nietzsche a commitment to integrated agency, it will be important to acknowledge the limits he places on agency and to take due notice of comments that suggest a position of anti-agency. As I see it, Nietzsche is ambivalent but not necessarily inconsistent in the way he conceives of agency. One can value integration without achieving it in a perfect sense, and one might enjoy being released from agency without being prepared to abandon it entirely.

In chapter 11, I consider the will to power. Focusing on both the concept of ‘the will’ and the concept of ‘power’, I investigate whether Nietzsche uses ‘power’ to mean mastery or domination. Siding with neither the proponents of mastery nor those of domination, I argue that, for better or worse, there is evidence for both points of view. In being consistent with narcissism, instincts, and affects, the will to power helps us to understand Nietzsche's understanding of integrated agency. I also reflect on the will to power as a recasting of the Hegel's notion of being-for-itself and as a challenge to his notion of being-for-another.

In chapter 12, I delve into an aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy that has been little explored: how he conceptualizes our relations to others. I argue that, while Nietzsche's approach to agency deepens and complicates Hegel's interest in self-concern, it is less evident how he thinks about concern for others. I begin by examining Nietzsche's comments about the relation between self and other. I then take account of his numerous reflections about friendship. I conclude that, though Nietzsche fails to acknowledge basic aspects of human relationships, such as mutuality, he is far from indifferent to considering our relation to others. Nietzsche's struggle with others in his own life is, no doubt, a clue to his view of relationships.

In chapter 13, I branch out to look at current perspectives that can be understood as outgrowths of Nietzschean agency. I begin with Jacques Derrida, emphasizing the influence of Emmanuel Levinas on his thought. I also introduce Jacques Lacan, who is not directly influenced by Nietzsche but whose psychoanalytic theory expounds the notion of decentered agency in a way that constitutes one vision of Nietzschean agency. Lastly, I consider Judith Butler, whose theories about gender and agency borrow from Nietzsche via Michel Foucault's emphasis on the body as culturally constructed. Butler's recent turn to “the psychic life of power” confirms the plausibility of connecting her perspective to Nietzschean agency. Derrida, Lacan, and Butler all extend Nietzschean agency by resorting, at least in part, to psychoanalysis. In the final section of chapter 13, I offer my own version of Nietzschean agency, stressing the importance of affects—an aspect of his philosophy not taken up by Derrida, Lacan, or Butler.

In the epilogue, I summarize the conclusions of my study of the relationship between Hegel and Nietzsche. My attempt to work through their relationship is meant to exemplify their shared commitment to working through all allegedly opposing concepts, to thinking beyond what is easy to take for granted. Insofar as I bring Hegel and Nietzsche together, I am seeking to disburden us from an outmoded and useless antinomy. To fix a contrast between these two thinkers without acknowledging the changes that occurred during the nineteenth century is tantamount to refusing to accept precisely what Hegel and Nietzsche claim about the relationship between philosophy and culture. To internalize Hegel's and Nietzsche's claim about philosophy and culture, on the contrary, raises questions that reach well beyond the interpretation of the nineteenth century.

My reading of Hegel, which highlights the ideal of satisfied agency and his overall attention to psychology, brings him closer to Nietzsche. Thus, it is evident that I am partial to the anthropological reading of Hegel. Although the ontological reading preserves what has primacy for Hegel himself, it is corrupted by his grandiose and self-serving fantasy about the fulfillment of Geist within his own culture. There are hermeneutic questions to face once one departs from Hegel's own self-understanding. At the same time, there are Hegelian reasons that might justify the choice to dwell on anthropology rather than ontology. Hegel claims that philosophy “provides satisfaction [Befriedigung] only for those interests which are appropriate to their time” (Hegel's introduction to LHP, p. 106). In this context, Hegel observes that Plato and Aristotle no longer satisfy us as they satisfied the Greeks; correspondingly there should be no need for us to seek our own satisfaction according to Hegel's standards. To be sure, it is important not to obscure what Hegel believed and to try to understand Hegel within his context, but this not does not require present-day philosophers to disregard what is pressing to them.

By highlighting Hegel's concept of recognition, I make my sympathy for the tradition of left Hegelianism apparent. Yet, as I see recognition, it is not only a socio-political vision that promotes our sense of connection to others; it also contains a notion of agency that demonstrates how constitutive others are in the formation of identity. There are good reasons to be suspicious about the seamless web of self-recognition, recognition of others, and social reconciliation that Hegel offers. However, this ought not hinder our appreciation of his insights into agency, which are developed in an illuminating way in the theory and the practice of psychoanalysis. Hegel shows us that a theory of agency must account for both narcissism and relatedness, and also for their interrelation. Indeed, Hegel's brilliance as a psychologist deserves more acknowledgement than it usually receives.

Paying attention to Hegel as a psychologist is an antidote to the simplistic, “sound bite” view of Hegel as the philosopher of totality. Hegel is not the philosopher of totality any more than Nietzsche is the philosopher of exploitation. Paying attention to Hegel as a psychologist deepens our appreciation of the uniqueness of his philosophy. In his depiction of the live drama of modern agency, Hegel shows a psychological astuteness that is not matched by Kant, Fichte, or Schelling. Undoubtedly, it is important to explore Hegel's Kantian roots and to try to contextualize his relation to early German Idealism. One might wonder, though, about the implications of the current tendency to dwell on Hegel's relation to Kant. It is tempting to read this tilt back to Kant as a substitution for Hegel's tilt forward to Marx. Perhaps the current tendency is not as neutral a scholarly development as it might seem. I raise this point not in the name of advocating an older and better Hegel, but as a reminder of the complex interaction of culture and memory that contributes to the construction of the Hegel of our own time.

If my reading of Hegel brings him closer to Nietzsche, it is also the case that my reading of Nietzsche brings him into closer proximity to Hegel. My reading of Nietzsche emphasizes his psychological approach to modernity and agency. I think that it is one-sided to view him exclusively as an advocate of self-invention. While I appreciate how Nietzsche anticipates postmodernism, I also think it is important not to ignore that his focus on the quest for individual self-realization through integrated agency and his aesthetic elitism (particularly his disdain for popular culture) situate him within modernist thinking. Nietzsche departs from Hegel in registering despair about modernity; yet this despair is best understood as a radicalization of the alienation that Hegel describes. Of course, it is a mistake to assimilate Nietzsche too readily to the philosophical tradition; at the same time, one should avoid the opposite extreme (as do proponents of the “wild and freaky” Nietzsche, who obscure his rethinking of modern agency). Dionysian experience, however compelling, can occupy us for only part of our lives. Nietzsche was well aware that it does not offer a complete vision of a satisfied life.

Nietzsche's ambivalence toward agency means that it is difficult to specify with any confidence what he really thinks. This can be frustrating, especially in comparison to Hegel. Yet, as I see it, this is also what makes Nietzsche an extraordinarily honest and realistic thinker. Nietzsche's view that the body, instincts, and affects cannot be expunged from human agency counterbalances many philosophical conceptions of agency. His appreciation of the limits of agency is also important; it anticipates and is fully consistent with psychoanalytic notions of decentered agency. Although Nietzsche does not give us an adequate picture of our relation to others, his idea of the will to power is more profound than Hegel's notion of being-for-itself.

Hegel's notion of recognition postulates the intersubjective basis of agency, yet this does not mean that one has to endorse Hegel's expectation that self-recognition will produce social reconciliation. Nietzsche's notion of the will to power and his emphasis on the body, instincts, and affects contribute to decentered agency, but this does not require one to accept his idiosyncratic view of our relation to others. Intersubjectivity and decentering can be understood as complementary as long as one does not imagine that this automatically dissolves the deep and abiding tensions between the will to power and recognition. My title, Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche, indicates that we can now see through the artificiality of demands that we choose between what these two thinkers offer. It is meant to suggest “both Hegel and Nietzsche” as well as “after Hegel and Nietzsche.”


  1. One could strengthen this intuition by supplementing it with a Hegel/Marx axis and a Nietzsche/Heidegger axis, as do Ferry and Renault (1990). The distinction then would be especially apt as a description of the generational politics of French philosophy. Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze, all of whom were influenced by Nietzsche, rebelled against the Kojève-influenced generation of philosophers (especially Jean Hyppolite, their teacher), who were deeply influenced by Hegel. Yet numerous questions would still abound. What about the importance of Husserl? And what about Hegel's influence on Derrida, not to mention his influence on Heidegger?

  2. The distinction between a Hegel/Marx axis and a Nietzsche/Heidegger axis would have to address the influence of Nietzsche and Heidegger on the Frankfurt School. Even Habermas went through a phase of being influenced by Heidegger. (For a discussion of the Frankfurt School's responses to Heidegger, see McCarthy 1991, pp. 83-96.)

  3. A voluminous literature concerning the legacy of the Enlightenment has grown out of the work of Habermas and his students and colleagues. See, e.g., Honneth et al. 1992a and 1992b. Nietzsche is too often read as exclusively a figure of the counter-Enlightenment. One must assess Nietzsche's view in light of a passage like the following (from a section of Daybreak titled “German Hostility to the Enlightenment”): “The Enlightenment we must now carry further forward [weiterzuführen]: let us not worry about the ‘great revolution’ and the ‘great reaction’ against it which have taken place—they are no more than the sporting of waves in comparison with the truly great flood which bears us along!” (D n197). Danto (1993, p. 136) has argued that Nietzsche is a part of the Enlightenment project, “agreeing in large measure with its logic, but dismissing the complacency of regarding homo sapiens europanesis as the apex.”

  4. The translation here amends Miller's “the strenuous effort of the Notion” (die Anstrengung des Begriffs).

  5. Löwith (1967, p. vi) speaks of Hegel's “consummation” and Nietzsche's “new beginning.”

  6. Kaufmann (1968) finds a parallel between Hegel and Nietzsche in their “dialectical monism.” Breazeale (1975), in a much more complex assessment, compares Hegel and Nietzsche in the framework of “the crisis of modern thought,” ultimately viewing them as “allies in the struggle against metaphysical, moral and epistemological dualism” (pp. 147, 162). Breazeale's article thoroughly explores Nietzsche's references to Hegel; it also contains the best historical survey of writing on the topic of the relationship between Hegel and Nietzsche. Houlgate (1986) focuses on Hegel's and Nietzsche's critiques of metaphysics and argues that the key to understanding the relationship between the two thinkers is to be found in their discussions of Greek tragedy. In some ways, Houlgate's view comes closest to my own; in his conclusion, he asserts that “Hegel and Nietzsche are actually allies against metaphysical abstraction and against the fragmented weakness and ‘decadence’ of the modern age” (p. 220).

  7. For a good discussion of Hegel's and Nietzsche's influence on Bataille's thinking, see Stoekl 1992, pp. 261-301.

  8. Butler (1997a, pp. 24, 32) draws attention to some parallels between Hegel and Nietzsche concerning the self-thwarting of “unhappy unconsciousness” and “slave morality” and also concerning how the subject is defined by turning inward and turning against itself. Butler emphasizes the theme of self-thwarting to the exclusion of what I term “self-fathoming.” Other scholars have made scattered comments about the relationship between Hegel and Nietzsche that are deserving of notice here. Rosen (1989, p. 204) declares that “those who insist upon a sharp juxtaposition between Hegel and Nietzsche have understood neither one nor the other.” White (1987, p. 40) argues that “the conflict between Nietzsche and Hegel has never, I believe, been adequately analyzed, much less resolved.” Rorty (1989, p. 79) observes in passing that Hegel transforms philosophy into a literary genre by offering ironic redescriptions of the past, and that Nietzsche then fulfills that ideal: “Nietzsche may have been the first philosopher to do consciously what Hegel had done unconsciously.” (ibid., p. 103)


Hegel in English

Hegel's Lectures on the History of Philsophy (LHP), volumes 1-3. Humanities Press, 1974 (reprint).

Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (PhS). Clarendon, 1977.

Nietzsche in German

Sämtliche Werke (SW). Walter de Gruyter, 1967.

Nietzsche in English

Beyond Good and Evil (BGE). In Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. W. Kaufmann. Random House, 1968

The Birth of Tragedy (BT). In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Random House, 1968.

Daybreak (D). Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Ecce Homo (EH). In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Random House, 1968.

The Gay Science (GS). Vintage, 1974.

Other Works

Bataille, G. 1992. On Nietzsche. Paragon House.

Breazeale, D. 1975. The Hegel-Nietzsche Problem. Nietzsche-Studien 4: 146-164.

Butler, J. 1997a. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford University Press.

Danto, A. 1993. The Shape of Artistic Pasts. In Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory, ed. P. Cook. Duke University Press.

Deleuze, G. 1983. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Columbia University Press.

Derrida, J. 1985. The Ear of the Other. University of Nebraska Press.

Ferry, L., and Renaut, A. 1990a. Heidegger and Modernity. Chicago University Press.

———. 1990b. French Philosophy of the Sixties. University of Massachusetts Press.

Habermas, J. 1983a. Philosophical-Political Profiles. MIT Press.

———. 1983b. Interpretive Social Science vs. Hermeneutics. In Social Science as Moral Inquiry, ed. R. Haan et al. Columbia University Press.

———. 1987. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. MIT Press.

Honneth, A. 1992a. Kampf um Anerkennung. Suhrkamp.

———. 1992b. Moral Development and Social Struggle: Hegel's Early Social-Philosophical Doctrines. In Cultural-Political Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment, ed. A. Honneth et al. MIT Press.

Horkheimer, M., and Adorno, T. 1986. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Continuum.

Houlgate, S. 1986. Hegel, Nietzsche and the Criticism of Metaphysics. Cambridge University Press.

Kaufmann, W. 1968. Nietzsche. Vintage.

Löwith, K. 1967. From Hegel to Nietzsche. Doubleday.

McCarthy, T. 1991. Ideals and Illusions. MIT Press.

Rorty, R. 1989. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press.

Rosen, S. 1989. The Ancients and the Moderns. Yale University Press.

Stoekl, A. 1992. Agonies of the Intellectual. University of Nebraska Press.

White, A. 1987. Nietzschean Nihilism: A Typology. International Studies in Philosophy 19, no. 2: 29-44.

John McCumber (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: McCumber, John. “Writing Down (Up) the Truth: Hegel and Schiller at the End of the Phenomenology of Spirit.” In Essays on Jewish and German Literature and Thought in Honor of Géza von Molnár: “The Spirit of Poesy,” edited by Richard Block and Peter Fenves, pp. 47-59. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, McCumber maintains that Hegel's emendations to a poem by Friedrich Schiller at the end of Phenomenology of Spirit were made to fit in with the philosophical message of his book.]

The Phenomenology of Spirit seems to end with the words of Friedrich Schiller, not of its author:

aus dem Kelche dieses Geisterreiches
schäumt ihm seine Unendlichkeit(1)
From the chalice of this realm of spirits
Foams forth to him his infinitude

But only seems to. The quotation is from the first stanza of Schiller's “Die Freundschaft.” But as it stands here, it is perhaps as much Hegel's as Schiller's. Here is Schiller's original version:

Freundlos war der große Weltenmeister
Fühlte sich allein—darum schuf er Geister
Sel'ge Spiegel seiner Seligkeit!
Fand das höchste Wesen schon kein Gleiches,
Aus dem Kelch des ganzen Schattenreiches
Schäumt ihm—die Unendlichkeit.(2)
Friendless was the great master of worlds,
Felt himself alone—and so created spirits,
Blessed mirrors of his blessedness!
Found the highest essence not his like,
From the chalice of the entire realm of shades
Foams forth to him—infinitude.


That there are major discrepancies between Schiller's poem and the Phenomenology of Spirit's “quotation” of it is obvious. And somewhat puzzling, for Hegel was not always so sloppy: in the “Heidelberger Niederschrift” of the introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, written nine years later, he quoted the stanza correctly and in full.3 What accounts for this improvement? Did Hegel read the poem anew? Did his scholarly habits get better once Napoleon was out of the picture? Did his memory grow stronger with age?

There is an issue here. I will begin to face it by summarizing the discrepancies between the Phenomenology's version and Schiller's own. In the first place, the Phenomenology version leaves out the first four of the stanza's six lines, which are replaced by the single word Nur (only). This obliterates the poem's references to the “great master of worlds,” the “spirits” who mirror his blessedness, and his failure to find among them his “like.” What is left, then, is only the chalice, the foaming infinitude, and a “him” (or possibly an “it”) to whom (or which) it foams.

That part of Schiller's text which actually makes it into the Phenomenology shows three further changes: the “shades” are replaced by “spirits” (Schattenreiches by Geisterreiches), “the entire” [ganzen] realm (of shades) is replaced by “this” [dieses] realm (of spirits), and “die” Unendlichkeit [infinitude as such] is replaced by “seine” Unendlichkeit [his infinitude].

Whether Hegel was consciously aware of them or not, these omissions and alterations—no fewer than six in number—are probably not wholly accidental. For they point consistently in two directions. Two of them remove references to the beings which foam forth infinitude as “mirrors” or “shades” of something else; they become Geister in their own right (1.B, 2). Three of the alterations remove references to unconditionalities of one kind or another: the “whole” realm of shades becomes merely “this” realm; “infinitude” itself becomes merely “his” infinitude; and the “he” himself in question—the great Master of worlds—is removed as well (1.A, 3, 4). He is replaced by absolute Spirit, whatever that may be, sitting on its Calvary as on a throne (564, par. 808).

The remaining alteration—the removal of the reference to the failure of the master of worlds to find his like in his creation (1.C)—points in both directions at once and shows how they are related. For what is omitted refers to a mirroring relation of the shades to the master of worlds which is defective: the Great Master of Worlds seeks a mirror and finds only defective ones. But if the Great Master of Worlds can even seek an adequate mirror, such a mirror—or such an accurate mirroring relation—is at least thinkable. And that adequate mirroring relation itself would be another unconditionality or perfection. Not only is the Great Master gone, but even the conception of a faithful copy, or shade, of such a being is not to be permitted.

Only the “chalice” remains unchanged.


That Hegel should make changes in Schiller's poem to get it to “fit” into a work of philosophy is hardly surprising; he spends a good part of his Lectures on Aesthetics doing just that sort of thing, if not quite so baldly. For poetry can present the content of spirit, but not in philosophical form. A poem thus requires a change in form if its contents are to become philosophical (as things must, at the end of the Phenomenology). As I have put it elsewhere, “poetry does not ‘present’ thoughts but ‘contains’ them. Philosophy then takes the ‘essential’ aspects of that content and gives them necessary order, or philosophical form.”4

It is perhaps surprising, however, that giving philosophical form to Schiller's poem here should require not an interpretation of it but its actual alteration—and that the alteration should take the form of such a series of dereifications, in which all references to anything unconditioned or atemporal—even the relation of “mirroring”—are replaced in favor of various kinds of situated (local and passing) phenomena (this realm, his infinitude). If all this is not simple carelessness, is it merely a passing fancy that overtook the book's author in the frenzy of its completion?5 Or does it tell us something worth knowing about the Phenomenology?

My case for the latter view will return to the very beginning of the book, its opening chapter, “Sense-Certainty.” There we see consciousness confronting the first and rawest form of an opposition that will continue to plague it throughout the Phenomenology—to such an extent that being “conscious” can almost be defined as “being plagued by this particular opposition.” It is not the opposition that (we) Hegelians normally take to “plague” conscious beings—that between subject and object. As it appears in this section, the relevant opposition is between space and time, on the one hand, and what fills them on the other. And this turns out to be a specific form of a more general opposition, which I will call that between universal and individual.

Space and time themselves are infinite in extent and infinitely divisible; no boundary can be found to them in either respect, and they are what may be called universal containers. To them corresponds the “pure self” of consciousness, likewise an all-containing universality (79f., par. 91). Opposed to all three is their “concrete content” [Inhalt]. This also appears, at first, as an infinitely extended (or divisible) richness. But on closer examination it turns out to be, of course, deeply impoverished: a mere “example” [Beispiel] of content which, local and transitory, plays past (spielt … beiher, 80, par. 92). The universal containers thus contain radical individuals, passing but concrete “here's” and “now's.”

Among the “countless differences that crop up here” is that between the example, or “this,” as object and as a self, which, right here and now, confronts (or “senses”) that object. As Hegel himself puts it, the “this” as self and the “this” as object “fall out of” pure being, the undifferentiated infinitude of space-time, to which they are both opposed (80, par. 92). Subject and object are thus distinguished from each other, first, in that now one and now the other is viewed as universal or individual: the subject-object distinction is not primary but presupposes that between universal and individual. Indeed, for the full subject-object distinction to appear, yet another opposition must come into play: for that distinction achieves its full form in “Sense-Certainty” only when one side of the more basic split—universal or individual—is taken as primary and the other as derivative. Thus, at the beginning of the section, the universal “pure consciousness” confronts an individual “this” and is either derived from it or vice versa; at the end, the object has become universal and the self is an individual pointing to it (88f., par. 110).

The subject-object distinction is thus founded on not one but two more basic distinctions: that between universal and individual and that between primary and derivative. It follows that Hegel here, in the opening moves of his first major published work, is already beyond standard views of such “modern” philosophers as Descartes and Locke, for whom the opposition of subject and object is famously basic.

The distinction between the universal (space-time, ego) and individual (example) causes problems because truth itself, the goal of consciousness, is placed on the side of the universal. This occurs when consciousness accepts the demand—itself, like everything else here, immediate and peremptory—to write the truth down: “a truth cannot lose by being written down, any more than by being preserved by us” [eine Wahrheit kann durch Aufschreiben nicht verlieren; ebensowenig dadurch, daß wir sie aufbewahren] (81, par. 95). This first attempt to write the truth down fails disastrously, of course; and as we might expect, it fails because of the discrepancy between universal and individual. “The now is the night,” which is what is first written down, names the individual “Now” in a way wholly inadequate to the infinite extension of the universal, time; for it is refuted twelve hours later.

And yet at book's end, writing the truth down succeeds: for there, absolute Spirit is sitting on the “actuality, truth, and certainty of its throne.” The throne itself, moreover, is explicitly said to be a double preservation [Aufbewahrung]: that of history and of the “science of appearing consciousness,” the Phenomenology, itself (564, par. 808). The Phenomenology—a book—is now successful as a writing down, and indeed explicitly as an Aufbewahren of the truth. How has this happened?

It has happened, in the final chapter of the Phenomenology, through what its first words identify as the “overcoming of its consciousness as such,” that is, as consciousness (549, par. 788) (those who uncritically accept the view that Hegel is merely a “philosopher of consciousness” should take note of this). To understand it requires me to take a few terrified steps into what I have elsewhere called the “stew of words”6 that concludes the Phenomenology, the fifteen pages of chapter 8: “Absolute Knowing” itself.


We have seen the first form of the opposition which plagues consciousness, that between the universality of space-time and the individuality of the “examples” it contains. As things begin in “Absolute Knowing,” the relevant opposition is the fact that the object of consciousness is not its “actual self-consciousness” (549, par. 788). This, we are told, is a discrepancy of “form.” It is overcome, partly, when the object posits itself as “vanishing” [verschwindend] (549, par. 788). The specific way in which the object does this shows it to have the same form as does consciousness, because it consists in the object showing itself as the interplay of three levels (550, par. 789): (1) as immediate being, ein Ding überhaupt; (2) as related to other beings and to itself, and so as internally complex; and (3) as the “essence” [Wesen] or universal. These correspond, we are told, to the three basic levels of consciousness: immediate consciousness, perception, and understanding. But they also bring back our old friend, the individual-universal opposition. For Hegel goes on to say, “[The object] is, as a whole, the syllogism or the movement of the universal through the particular to individuality, as [well as] the reverse, the movement from individuality through itself as sublated, the particular, to the universal” (550, par. 789). What has been added to the universal-individual distinction in the course of the several hundred intervening pages is the middle term: the “particular” as the relationality, to other beings and to itself, of the object.7 It is in virtue of its mediation by the particular that the object, itself an individual, can acquire an essence: for an essence, as universal, must (to speak Kantian for a moment) comprise a number of things “under” itself. Those things are thereby related to one another (e.g., through similarity). Through that relation, they acquire a universal “essence.”

Such, in rough outline, is the “self-mediation” of the object. Its “vanishing” is the mediation of its three levels, which shows it to have the same structure as consciousness. That structure is a dynamic (“vanishing”) interplay of the three levels of individual, particular, and universal. But this leads to a question: if object and consciousness share a “structure,” how can their disparity be a difference in “form”?

We can gain purchase on this by remembering that, in the metaphysical tradition, form was active, while matter was passive. This traditional view of the active nature of form is retained here, but only—and surprisingly—on the side of consciousness. For contrary to what was just said, the vanishing of the object—the mediation of its three levels—turns out to be carried out in it not merely or even primarily by the object itself but “more specifically … rather” by self-consciousness (549, par. 788). In this, the object appears as passive: as “a number of shapes which we bring together, and in which the totality of the moments of the object and of the activity of consciousness can only be shown as dispersed” (550, par. 789) (I take it that the famous “we” of the Phenomenology is here, at the end, collapsing with self-consciousness itself). Because the object is in this respect passive, while consciousness is active, their disparity remains. It is a disparity not in the static structures that they exhibit but in the “formal” dynamism of those structures.

But now we have a problem: who or what carries out the mediation of the object? The “vanishing” of the object is now, apparently, its being taken up by us, or self-consciousness, into a “number of objects.” In this, particularities—relations—are established that somehow mediate the object with its own universal essence. This mediation must be accomplished by self-consciousness, presumably, because otherwise the mutual externality of consciousness and object will not be overcome. But it is also, we have seen, accomplished by the object itself and—again—must be. Otherwise, how can the Phenomenology provide a true “comprehension” of that object?

What is needed, of course, is to show that the two mediations are identical: that the vanishing or self-mediation of the object is carried out by both it and “us,” or consciousness, together. Here, I think, is where the Phenomenology becomes itself a player in the game it recounts. For Hegel's argument that the object carries out its own mediation of its individual and universal aspects turns out to be nothing but a short recapitulation of the Phenomenology up to that point (550f., pars. 790-95). Instead of talking about the object, he talks about the Phenomenology.

Whether this “argument” is successful—whether Hegel's recapitulation of the course of the Phenomenology is accurate or not, or whether the developments it recapitulates were themselves dialectically sound as originally presented—interests me less than the fact that he should apply such a strategy at all. For that strategy in fact presupposes that the problem is already solved: the recapitulation of the Phenomenology can only show that the self-mediation of the object is its mediation by consciousness if what is recapitulated was, in fact, the self-mediation of the object. Otherwise, the recapitulation is irrelevant. But what is recapitulated is the pathway of the Phenomenology. Therefore, the pathway of the Phenomenology must itself be the self-mediation of the object. Otherwise, the possibility would remain open that Hegel has in fact faithfully recapitulated his book but that the book itself somehow did not really present the object's self-mediation. That Hegel does not even mention this possibility suggests that he sees no “gap” between the pathway of the Phenomenology and the self-mediation of the object: that they are one and the same thing.

There is a second argument for this. The pathway of the Phenomenology, most assuredly, did not exist until Hegel wrote the book:8 there is no antecedent reality in which, for example, stoicism gave way in turn to skepticism, the unhappy consciousness, and the contemplation of nature. If that sequence shows the self-mediation of the object, then the object cannot have mediated itself until the book was written: it must have mediated itself through the writing of the book. But this cannot have been, for example, a mere facilitating: it cannot be that the object was somehow assisted in its self-mediation by the writing of the Phenomenology. For then the object's mediation would not be a self-mediation at all; it would have been brought about by something external to the object. So again, the writing of the Phenomenology and the self-mediation of the object must be identical. Hence again: the book's pathway does not present the self-mediation of the object but rather is that self-mediation.

In which case, the course of the Phenomenology itself must be the object whose disparity with consciousness is to be removed. To put this more accurately: each of the book's stages would itself be an individual “object.” As the book proceeds, each establishes its own particular relation to other stages, so that each stage produces the following stage and follows necessarily upon the previous stage. The whole sequence of these is the mediation of each individual stage with the “universal,” the book as a whole. The self-mediation of the object would then be the constitution of the sequence of stages of consciousness, that is, the writing of the Phenomenology itself.

But this seems to run against Hegel's own text. For at the end of the book's introduction, Hegel himself suggests that there is a difference between the pathway of the Phenomenology and what that pathway presents. There, the necessary order of the shapes of consciousness is explicitly referred to as unser Zutat, our contribution (73f., par. 87). And Hegel repeats this, here in “Absolute Knowing”:

What we have added to this is only, in part, the collecting of the individual moments, each of which presents the life of the entirety of Spirit in its principle, and in part keeping fast to the Concept in the form of the Concept, whose content has already constituted itself in those Moments.

(556, par. 797)

So the problem remains: how can “our” presentation of the self-mediation of the object in the Phenomenologybe the self-mediation of the object?

Here, I think, it is important to keep two things separate. One is the nature of an individual object, or moment, which is “collected.” This nature, if I am right, is just to be a stage of the Phenomenology. The other is the issue of how those stages are strung together. The latter, to be sure, is “our” contribution, in a way yet to be understood. But it does not follow that the stages which are strung together are not, on another level, the work of Hegel, the author of the book. A remark about how the Phenomenology was written may help here. As Walter Kaufmann notes, the “writing” of the Phenomenology took only about eight months, and must in large part have consisted in Hegel's reworking into an ordered whole material which he had previously written.9 That material is not external to the book—it exists nowhere else than in it; but writing it was not, in Hegel's mind, part of the writing of the Phenomenology; it is not the doing of the immanent “we” of the book's progress.

The individual shapes of consciousness which are collected in the Phenomenology are not to be found outside it, in history or daily life for example, but simply are its various stages. “Our” contribution is to order those stages. The discrepancy Hegel refers to in the quotations given here is not one between the stages of consciousness and their written presentation in the Phenomenology but between the written stages of the Phenomenology just lying around—on Hegel's desk, perhaps—and those same stages as collected into the book.

The Phenomenology is then entirely self-referential; its various stages are not presentations of realities which existed elsewhere and then were written down, but they exist only within the book. Or, to put it in other words, which should be familiar: the shapes of consciousness are not “shades” or “mirrors” of something else, but Geister in their own right.

Nor need this be surprising. In the very passage where Hegel accurately quotes Schiller, from the Heidelberg manuscript of the introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, we find a discussion of books: “The essence of my spirit is in my spirit itself, not outside. So also with the essential content of a book: I abstract from the volume, paper, printer's ink, language, the many thousand letters that stand within it; the simple, universal content is not outside the book.”10 Similarly, I suggest: the “content” of the Phenomenology is not what it says about external realities but is entirely immanent to it—as immanent and independent of externalities as is my very spirit. The historical and other phenomena which find their way into the Phenomenology, and which are altered in doing so, are not themselves “real” or “true”—they are merely adumbrations of the truth. Only when written down—or, we might better say, when written up—in the Phenomenology do they become “true” objects.

It is now clear why the truth cannot be hurt, as we saw, by being written down (up): the truth simply is what is written down (up). It could only be hurt if it were written down in a loose (unconnected or uncollected) way, or phrased in the wrong words, or violated in some other way: only if Hegel did not do what remains of his job as author. This is not to create the “universal content” of the Phenomenology—the way Jane Austen created the plot of Emma, for Hegel does not create the pathway of the Phenomenology; once begun, it runs along via determinate negation. His job as author is to present that process in the concrete externalities of literary organization (chapters, sections, etc.) and language.


Hegel's emendations of Schiller ran, I said, in two directions. One of these was to remove all references to the various entities which “foam forth” as mirroring, or shades, of something else; and we can now see that these emendations are in fact required by his argumentation in “Absolute Knowing.” But (alas!) we are not finished. For even if it is all that we are to deal with, the sequence of the Phenomenology contains numerous stages which differ from one another. And their unity with one another is not yet (I am now on 554, par. 795) evident.

To put this another way: at paragraph 795, Hegel has recapitulated the movement of the Phenomenology only up to the stage of the “Beautiful Soul.” At that stage the individual is viewed as something produced by Spirit—just as I view the individual shapes of consciousness as produced by the Phenomenology itself. For the individual, in the “Beautiful Soul,” is Spirit's deed. But Spirit is not “unified” with its own deed. And this is because Spirit is disunified with itself. On the one hand, it is theoretical: its knowledge is a serene universal unity, as empty as the Kantian categorical imperative is on Hegel's view. Because it is empty, it is fully able to justify any individual action which the soul in question may commit. The knowledge of this pure capacity to act rightly is knowledge of the highest, most abstract level of Spirit itself: it is, writes Hegel, “not merely the intuition of the divine, but its self-intuition” (554, par. 795). On the other hand, the fact that theoretical Spirit can justify any deed it commits implies that those deeds need justification: any action, as action, is merely individual, hence opposed to the universal self-intuition of the divine, and hence evil: it is Fürsichsein which defines its committer as evil (555, par. 796). The two sides—universal and individual—are not merely discrepant, but actively opposed.

This situation, Hegel tells us, is the same as at the Phenomenology's beginning (554, par. 796). The difference is that the universal here is no longer the static emptiness of space-time but the activity of universal self-knowledge; while the individual is no longer a mere “example” of sensory content but the deed of that very universal. Hence, the universal and the individual are both “negative” and “mediated,” and the ground for a reconciliation of the two is at hand.

The reconciliation occurs, as the section on the Beautiful Soul has it, when consciousness no longer disowns and explains away its misdeeds but acknowledges them and asks forgiveness, recognizing itself as their perpetrator and allowing itself to be defined by them (470f., pars. 669f.). Here in Absolute Knowing, this is presented as a “renunciation” [Verzicht] (555, par. 796), in which the pure knowledge of the universal renounces its purity and acknowledges itself to be—what?

The unity of the various shapes of consciousness through which it has passed. And with this, each of those stages loses its independence within the whole and becomes nothing more than its place in the sequence: it allows itself to be defined by the overall course of the Phenomenology itself. This is not only a Verzicht but a death: “[T]he [individual or deed] dies away in its Being-for-self, and externalizes, acknowledges itself; [the other] abjures the rigidity of its abstract universality, and with this it dies away in its lifeless self and its unmoved universality” (555, par. 796). As a Verzicht, Hegel tells us, this is what happened at the Phenomenology's beginning: there, what consciousness had to renounce was its effort to write the truth down. But here the renunciation is not forced upon consciousness; it is consciousness's own (555f., pars. 796f.).

There is, I suggest, a double renunciation in play here. One is what we have already seen: the claim of any shape of consciousness within the book to represent some antecedent reality has already been renounced. Now, the claim of any stage within the book to be anything more that what it needs to be in order to hold its place in the whole development is renounced in turn.

Why is this second renunciation possible here but not at the beginning? There are two reasons. First, the mere example of “Sense-Certainty,” coming and going within the emptiness of space-time, has given way to a whole concrete series of shapes of consciousness, each of which has—and is—its own necessary location within the whole. And the universal—the goal of the whole process—is now, like all other stages of the book, nothing more than its position in the whole. It is the unity of the set of shapes through which the Phenomenology has passed, or the Concept “in unity with its externalization—the knowing of pure knowing, not as the abstract essence which is [Kantian] duty, but as the essence which is this knowledge, this pure self-consciousness, which is therefore at once a true object …” (554, par. 796, emphasis Hegel's).

At this point—still eight pages from the end, but as far as I will follow the movement of “Absolute Knowledge”—we have the “final form of Spirit, Spirit which gives to its complete and true content the form of the self, and through this realizes its Concept … absolute knowing” (556, par. 798).

The universal—the goal, the truth which was to be written down—thus dies away in its separate being and becomes nothing more than the knowledge of this sequence of shapes of consciousness. As absolute Spirit, the goal of the Phenomenology is thus not something which can exist independently of the sequence of shapes of consciousness of which it is the unity:

As Spirit which knows what it is, it does not exist before, and [exists] nowhere else than after the completion of the labor … of constituting [verschaffen] to itself, for its consciousness, the form of its essence, and in this way to equate its self-consciousness to its consciousness.

(557, par. 800)

The lonely Master of Worlds, independent of his creation, is gone: absolute Spirit, Spirit which knows itself, is result only. And what it results from, the series of shapes of consciousness which “foams forth” to it, is not the set of all possible shapes—the ganze realm of shapes of consciousness. It is merely this realm, of spirits. Its self-determining unity is not infinitude itself, die Unendlichkeit, but the infinitude immanently determined by that specific whole: seine Unendlichkeit.

The Phenomenology is thus, though self-referential, situated: it is the unity not of all possible shapes of consciousness but only of these. And “these” turn out to be those—or among those—which were most forcefully “adumbrated” in the world of Hegel's Germany of 1808. When realities changed, in Hegel's later view, the Phenomenology became outdated. In 1831 he could write of it: “peculiar early work, not to be reworked—related to the time of its composition—in the Preface: the abstract [i.e., Schellingian] absolute ruled in those days.”11

We now see how the Phenomenology has succeeded in writing down the truth. To put it crudely, the “truth” just is what it has written, and nothing over and above that. The crudeness disappears when we realize how special that writing must be: when we realize that it must bring each stage forward only as required by the previous one and only as requiring the next (via what Hegel calls “determinate negation”). This is why Hegel does not invent the course of the Phenomenology in the way that a novelist invents her plot.


What would it have been like if consciousness's first effort at writing down the truth had succeeded—if the Phenomenology had at its outset allowed a writing which was in fact adequate, not to the universals of sense certainty where truth was peremptorily assumed to lie (space and time), but simply to the various “examples” of sensory content themselves?

It would have to be a writing which itself “played past”: which never stopped to gather itself in the stability of even the most local “truth,” but proliferated in a series of radical mutations which, as evanescent, were neither “here” nor “not here”; which did not conform to any standing rules, such as those of determinate negation, but in its radical individuality, constantly renewed, transgressed all; which held place in no stable development but as wholly immediate came from nowhere and went nowhere, refreshing itself inexhaustibly without regard to any before or after. A writing which, therefore, did not efface itself in the necessarily predictable movement from sign to signified but continually reimposed itself as a sensory play whose components did not remain self-identical long enough to be sensed.

Such writing, if it were possible, would, I suggest, look much like what Derrida calls écriture: “a writing without presence, without absence, without history, without cause, without archê, without telos, absolutely deranging every dialectic, every theology, every teleology, every ontology.”12

The Phenomenology both excludes and accommodates itself to such writing. It excludes it insofar as écriture would be, as I have suggested, the writing of sense-certain examples: for it was the succession of sensory contents there that was, in its immediacy, “without history, without cause, without archê, without telos.Écriture, or différance, is precisely what is lost when consciousness agrees that truth cannot lose by being written down. Just as we would expect, if Derrida's general argument is right, this exclusion is necessary to get the development going. And just because of this, it is unargued: a peremptory demand which is just as peremptorily acceded to.

But the writing of the Phenomenology also accommodates itself to such writing—at its very end. For space-time has not disappeared in absolute knowing. Such knowing, Hegel writes,

knows not only itself, but also the negative of itself, or its own limit. Knowing its limit means knowing how to sacrifice itself. This sacrifice is the externalization in which spirit presents its becoming Spirit in the form of free contingent happening, intuiting its pure self as the time outside it, and similarly its being as space.

(563, par. 807)

“Free contingent happening” was of course what characterized the immediate succession of Beispiele, examples, in sense-certainty. Knowing this as its own without denying to it freedom and contingency means, here in Absolute Knowing, the “sacrifice” of Spirit, its recognition of its continued dependence upon what it began by excluding. In this sense, the Entäußerung of Absolute Knowing is its incomplete (563, par. 807), continuing exposure to time. This exposure to the contingency of being is history (564, par. 808), which is not only not “ended” in Absolute Knowing but constitutes one side of the “throne” of Absolute Spirit (the other is the “science of appearing knowledge” itself [564, par. 808]).

Space-time is thus present at the end of the Phenomenology in a double guise. On the one hand, as “recollected” by Spirit, space is the extent of Spirit's content, and time is its maturity (564, par. 808): it is its space, we may say, and its time. On the other hand, as that to which Spirit remains exposed, it is what it has always been: the one thing that has not disappeared in Hegel's reworking of Schiller's quote. For it is the “chalice” from which foams forth Spirit's own content and the sequence which engenders Spirit itself.


Aus dem Kelche dieses Geisterreiches
Schäumt ihm seine Unendlichkeit.


  1. G. F. W. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, 6th ed., ed. Johannes Hoffmeister (Hamburg: Meiner, 1952), 564. English translation: G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), par. 808 (references in the text are to the page numbers and the paragraph numbers of the translation). Translations are mine, and rough. English words used in their Hegelian sense are capitalized.

  2. The poem can be found in Arthur Kutscher, ed., Schillers Werke: Erster Teil, 6 vols. (Berlin: Bong and Co., n.d.), 1:40f.

  3. G. F. W. Hegel, Werke, ed. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970-71), 18:73.

  4. See G. F. W. Hegel, Aesthetics, trans. T. M. Knox, 2 vols. with consecutive pagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 963, 972, 976, 984f., 997. Cf. also Quentin Lauer, ed. and trans., Hegel's Idea of Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974), 111f., 115, 122f.

  5. For an account of that frenzy, see Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: A Reinterpretation (Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Books, 1966), 90-93.

  6. See John McCumber, The Company of Words, (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 21.

  7. The particular was already present in sense-certainty—as the “night” which named the Now. But its presence could not be recognized or exploited because to do so would be to recognize, and exploit, mediation. Everything in “Sense-Certainty,” however, is—as we are repeatedly told in that section—to be strictly immediate.

  8. As Hegel well knows: see the quotation from 557 near the end of my section “Writing the Truth as Collecting the Moments.”

  9. Kaufmann, Hegel, 90-93.

  10. Hegel, Werke, 18:72f.

  11. “Eigentümliche frühere Arbeit, nicht umzuarbetien—auf die damalige Zeit der Abfassung bezüglich—in Vorrede: das abstrakte Absolute herrschte damals” (quoted by the editor, Johannes Hoffmeister, in the German edition, 578).

  12. Jacques Derrida, De la grammatolologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), 68; English translation: Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 46; also cf. Jacques Derrida, “Ousia et grammé,” in Derrida, Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972), 78; English translation in Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 67. I think it is no accident that the first thing which écriture is said to derange is “dialectic.”

Karin De Boer (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: De Boer, Karin. “The Infinite Movement of Self-Conception and Its Inconceivable Finitude: Hegel on Logos and Language.” Dialogue 40, no. 1 (winter 2001): 75-97.

[In the following essay, De Boer explores the relation between thought and language in the Science of Logic.]


Language intrudes into everything that we make our own by representing it, Hegel remarks in the Science of Logic.1 Language is also the element which allows human beings to come into their own themselves: Hegel calls language the existence of the pure self as self. For whereas the self which manifests itself in deeds and physiognomic expressions never coincides with these one-sided manifestations and, withdrawing from them, deprives them of their soul, language is such that it allows human beings to express what they are, to be present at their expressions and share themselves with others.2 Since, according to Hegel, language constitutes the most spiritual externalization of spirit and as such the only element in which philosophy can accomplish itself, it seems obvious even for Hegel that no philosophical self-reflection can turn away from the question concerning the relation between language and conceptuality. Now twentieth-century philosophy has been largely determined by a turn from thought to language, that is to say, by a growing awareness of the way in which actual languages do not just express thoughts, but rather inform and determine what can be thought at all. From this perspective classical philosophical systems such as Hegel's can be easily criticized for letting pure thought prevail over language and for neglecting the constitutive role of language. Although it is certainly true that Hegel preserves a hierarchical distinction between thought and the language in which it expresses itself, it is one of the aims of this article to demonstrate that Hegel's conception of the relation between thought and language is less susceptible to criticism inspired by the so-called linguistic turn than might seem to be the case. I believe that one cannot criticize Hegel without having investigated what exactly he means when he distinguishes between the totality of pure concepts on the one hand and language on the other.

However, the interpretation I propose is not primarily meant to provide an answer to the question concerning Hegel's understanding of language, but rather to be a detour which might lead us to see that the ultimate “element” which has already always intruded into the development of the absolute concept is not language, but something that precedes both language and thinking and cannot be questioned from the perspective of the absolute concept. This means that I will choose a two-fold strategy. First, I will go along with Hegel's texts to interpret his conception of the relation between logos and language and to show why this conception is so difficult to attack. Second, I will try to indicate a point from which a deconstruction of the basic presuppositions of this conception might have a chance to succeed. I am convinced that in order to radically criticize Hegel it is neither sufficient to defend the ineffability of singular beings, nor to state that philosophy is incapable of ever overcoming its dependence on language.3 However, given the limits of this article it will not be possible here to do more than prepare the ground for a deconstructive reading of Hegel's speculative science. The second part of my reading can therefore only consist in a preliminary sketch of the problematic.4

If one sets out to investigate Hegel's understanding of the relation between thought and language, one cannot avail oneself of an elaborated philosophy of language. Hegel's Encyclopaedia addresses the issue of language only within the context of the part of the philosophy of subjective spirit that Hegel calls psychology. This brief analysis, in which language is presented in relation with imagination, the use of signs, and remembrance, clearly cannot suffice to understand language insofar as it constitutes the element of pure philosophical thought. The most extensive analysis of thinking, on the other hand, is offered in the last part of the Science of Logic. In the first section of the Subjective Logic, Hegel systematically elaborates the different forms of concepts, judgements, and syllogisms which constitute the means whereby thinking can achieve knowledge. Some of these forms allow thinking to determine the manifold given by the senses; others, like the syllogism, allow thinking to proceed without being dependent on sense-perception.5 In this whole section, Hegel refers only once to language, namely, when stating that language, as the means of designation proper to reason, is much better able to grasp the totality of conceptual determinations than, for instance, numerical relationships are.6

Thus, whereas the analysis of language in the Encyclopaedia is one-sided in that it restricts itself to the psychological aspects of language, the analysis of thinking in the Logic is one-sided in that it restricts itself to the formal structures of discursive thought.7 The mutual one-sidedness of these analyses clearly calls for their sublation, but Hegel's system seems to leave no room for a systematic analysis of the relation between philosophical thought, mute as it is, and its linguistic articulation. It is important to note that, although philosophical thought must to a certain extent articulate itself by means of the formal structures proper to discursive thinking, it achieves its essence only by giving rise to the basic ontological concepts or principles which constitute the decisive moments of the history of philosophy in that they allow us to comprehend reality as a whole. Hegel considers that the development of these concepts does not have its ultimate ground in human subjectivity, but in the process of increasing self-determination that constitutes the subject of the Science of Logic. Since the analyses in the Encyclopaedia and the Subjective Logic each in their own way pertain to finite subjectivity, it will be necessary to move away from them in order to gain access to Hegel's understanding of the relation between philosophy and language. The bones of formal thought and the flesh of natural language are what they are by virtue of the “original word” which first breathes life into them.8 I will therefore start out from Hegel's conception of the absolute concept and, after briefly sketching out the relation between the Logic and the philosophy of nature and spirit, address various passages on language that can be found in, among others, his lectures on the philosophy of world history.

In what follows, I take it for granted that every reading of Hegel that either interprets Hegel's system as the absolute self-comprehension of the absolute or criticizes such a metaphysical interpretation in favour of historicity, natural language, or finite subjectivity falls prey to a one-sidedness that Hegel would consider the result of common, discursive understanding. The opposition between a purely logical system on the one hand and finite reality on the other is an opposition that Hegel would see as one of the many possible oppositions by means of which non-speculative philosophy organizes its interpretation of reality. I will therefore try to do justice to the way Hegel understands every possible object of thought—ranging from the logical structures underlying our knowledge to the most concrete aspects of reality—as a particular expression of one single underlying principle. The unity of Hegel's thought can only be preserved, however, if one resists perhaps even more than he himself sometimes does a metaphysical interpretation of this principle by emphasizing that it is nothing but the dynamic of self-determination at work in nature, human life, and history.9 I will begin, therefore, by briefly indicating the problem which induced Hegel to develop his conception of the absolute concept.


“What, then, is the secret bond which links our spirit to nature?” In 1797, the young Schelling raises this question in his first text on the philosophy of nature.10 One might say that this question is raised against Kant, who by then had found the fame for which he had been waiting so long. Kant had shown that what we call objectivity is brought about by the subject, and that true knowledge consists in the categorial determination of what we perceive through the senses as within time and space. Thus, only the side of nature which is turned towards us allows itself to be known. Nature can be caught in the nets of time and space which the subject throws out, although it may be true that these nets do not catch everything. As the pure forms of time and space delimit the domain of knowledge, they can be considered to first establish the difference between what appears to us and the things in themselves. According to Kant, then, knowledge of nature is indeed possible, but only insofar as nature consents to get caught in the nets thrown out by the subject. This implies that the subject itself must consent to get caught in the very nets that are meant to catch the world of appearances. Thus, although human beings are morally free, theoretical knowledge is such that it cannot free itself from the bonds of time and space by which it is tied to the world. I imagine these consequences to have deeply troubled the young and sensitive souls of Schelling, Hölderlin, and Hegel. Time and space and the categories of discursive understanding do indeed enable knowledge of nature and thus a certain identity between subject and object. Yet time and space can only do this by ultimately separating the subject from nature as it is in itself. How is this cleft to be accepted, when philosophy from its very beginning has sought to conceive the true unity of thinking and being? Schelling and his friends could not accept it, and thus had to find another way of understanding the bond between spirit and nature. A secret one, Schelling calls it. A secret bond which secretly enables us to understand the true nature of human spirit and the way in which it achieves knowledge of nature and of itself. In order to overcome the cleft between nature and spirit, Schelling proposes that nature be understood as intelligent in itself. Whereas Kant had maintained that we cannot know whether nature is teleological in itself or not, Schelling boldly ignores this self-restriction of reason and determines nature as the merely visible manifestation of spirit, which truly manifests itself in human self-consciousness. From this perspective, nature does not rest in itself, but continually strives to overcome its own exteriority and to reach, in human consciousness, the stage of its final self-comprehension. All the dead and unconscious products of nature are but failed attempts of nature to reflect upon itself, Schelling writes in his System of Transcendental Idealism.11 Nature seeks to give rise to an interiority that is capable of determining its own outside; it seeks to become conscious of itself, to conquer its blindness, and it ultimately reaches this aim in human self-consciousness.

If nature is visible spirit, and spirit invisible nature, as Schelling puts it,12 both nature and spirit must be conceived as manifestations of a principle which is in itself neither nature nor spirit but which manifests its own nature most purely in human self-consciousness. Even when it is hardly visible, one might say that plants and animals accomplish a process of self-differentiation which makes it possible for them to embody their inner principle from within and thus to command their outward appearance. While this capacity for “self-determination” is always thwarted in nature by the random exteriority of time and space, human beings are truly able to determine themselves and their environing world from within, and to gradually overcome the dependence on what they are not. Following Schelling in this respect, Hegel thus considers nature itself as gradually realizing its innermost logos. Since the traditional concept of “essence” fails to do justice to the movement in which the essence of something yields its realization, Hegel chooses the word “concept”—Begriff—to indicate the pure principle of self-determination or self-organization which is somehow at work in everything which is, and most of all in human thinking. Like the Greek logos, this principle underlies both reality itself and our knowledge of it.13 In itself, this principle is nothing but the infinite movement in which the pure concept distinguishes itself from itself, conceives itself, gives birth to itself, and realizes itself through nature and spirit. I therefore propose to translate Begriff in such a way that the dynamic character of the verb begreifen is emphasized even more than in the German word; not as “concept,” but as “self-conception.”14 Thus, a philosophy that overcomes the classical opposition between essence and actual existence by taking the essential movement of self-conception—that is, of self-determination—as its basic “category” will be able to achieve knowledge of reality as it is in and for itself, that is to say, not only as it appears to us within time and space and can be determined by the categories of the understanding.

This new, idealistic perspective leads up to different tasks. First, it demands the elaboration of an encompassing philosophy of reality. Philosophy must, as it were, follow the ways in which nature develops into consciousness, and consciousness into the capacity to achieve knowledge of the world, of itself, and of the absolute principle which grounds both nature and spirit. However, this achievement of knowledge itself has a long history. If, as Kant had shown, every knowledge is based on certain non-empirical categories, philosophy next has to be able to follow the ways in which these pure categories or concepts gradually took shape to finally result in the concept which enables us to understand reality as it is in and for itself. This is what happens in Hegel's Science of Logic. Starting out from the concept or category which has not yet determined itself at all, the Logic reconstructs the necessary movement in which the absolute concept gradually conceives and accomplishes itself. Thus is shown that the sequence of pure categories through which we attain finite knowledge of reality necessarily results in a category which is, as the infinite principle of self-determination, of the same nature as the principle which underlies the forms of the natural world itself. Before turning to the issue of language, I will first briefly indicate the overall structure of the Logic. It goes without saying that within the context of this article I cannot even begin to do justice to the immense complexities of this work.

In the Logic, Hegel distinguishes three basic concepts: being, essence, and concept. These concepts are not to be understood as specific categories, but rather as designating three fundamentally different ontological perspectives. Thus, the perspective guided by the category “being” makes it possible to acquire knowledge of things insofar as they are given through sense-perception.15 Only from within this perspective can we determine the qualities and quantities of what we perceive and interrelate our experiences by means of, for instance, the category of causality. Whenever someone points at something and says, in whatever language, “big,” “red,” or “frightening,” he or she has implicitly made use of the basic concept “being.” Philosophers such as Parmenides were needed to invent names for these basic concepts themselves.

The same person may want to call a specific red object a “tomato” in order to be able to talk about tomatoes when there is no such thing within the reach of a pointing finger. One can only do this on the basis of a certain understanding of what is specific to this kind of thing, that is, if one implicitly knows “what” it is. Thus we might say that every naming presupposes that someone has implicitly distinguished between the “what” or the “essence” of a thing and its accidental properties. Only the philosopher, again, is able to invent names for this difference itself. This naming implies a fundamental change of perspective. As soon as philosophy explicitly turns its attention to the essence of that which is and attempts to inquire as to being qua being, it is guided by a perspective which Hegel designates by the basic category “essence.” This perspective not only allows us to distinguish between what is essential and what is visible, but also, consequently, to understand the world by means of opposite concepts such as infinity and finitude, ground and that which is grounded, true reality and mere appearance, inside and outside, spirit and nature, subject and object. According to Hegel, such oppositions have somehow or other determined the history of philosophy, including that of Kant. Although in a certain way they allow us to comprehend the totality of that which is, these oppositional schemes ultimately fail to give philosophy the satisfaction it always longed for. Due to the dialectical development of the pure concept that determines the course of the history of philosophy, the perspective of “essence” must overcome its one-sidedness and develop into the perspective of the “concept.” From within this perspective, philosophy will no longer be guided by oppositions, but will be able to comprehend everything which is as the movement in which its “essence” attempts to acquire reality. Hence, the concept of something is not an abstract generality, but is itself the movement in which it takes shape and realizes itself from within. The Logic thus provides and founds a perspective which enables philosophy to overcome the stable, oppositional schemes of dogmatic philosophy and become speculative science.

Try to regard a living being from this perspective, Hegel tells us, and you will be able to see how its soul—or, as Aristotle would say, its substance—determines its different functions from within and realizes itself through all its exteriorizations. It is not the difference between soul and body or between inside and outside which guides the speculative perspective, but the one movement in which the soul turns itself into body and the inside itself inside out.16 However, speculative philosophy is not interested in the life of plants and animals for their own sake. Nature only matters insofar as its richness and diversity express the one and only movement of increasing self-organization and self-determination which necessarily results in that form of self-determination which we call human consciousness. Animals certainly have some kind of consciousness and are able to move themselves, but they are tied to the world which surrounds them by their needs, and remain forever dependent on their immediate desires. They can mate, eat tomatoes, utter cries, and communicate in a certain way with their kind, but they cannot speak. Speaking, then, seems only possible when certain immediate ties to the world have been broken and a free space between man and the things he names has opened itself.

The life of animals depends so much on exterior influences that the movement of self-conception cannot reach a reality here which is equal to its inner essence. The true overcoming of this exteriority, Hegel remarks in the Encyclopaedia, only takes place in human spirit. Only the “I” is truly able to remain itself throughout its self-differentiations. It does not abandon itself to its world, but distinguishes itself from its world by conferring meaning to the beings it encounters. Hence, these beings lose their independent, accidental existence and enter the realm of spirit itself. The ideality of spirit accomplishes itself in relating to the infinitely manifold material that it finds over against itself: “This material, in being sized by the “I,” is at the same time poisoned and transformed by the latter's universality; it loses its isolated, independent existence and receives a spiritual one.”17

In principle, then, the concept attains its adequate reality in human consciousness. This consciousness, however, is in itself only a first germ, hardly visible, which cannot bear to remain as it is and longs for its fruition.18 Although human spirit has itself a long way to go to reach its final accomplishment, there is no doubt that the transition from the life of the animal to the life of spirit is most decisive. It is, as Hegel calls it in his early text on Schelling and Fichte, the moment in which the light of nature interiorizes itself or in which the ideal, as a flash of lightning, strikes the real.19 But how are we to imagine such an event to have taken place? The innermost movement of the concept tells us that the first germing of spirit must somehow and somewhere have taken place. Imagine the scene of someone pointing at some animal in the distance and naming it for the first time.20 The flash of lightning which brought the light of logos into the world must have been the advent of speech.21


Surprisingly perhaps, Hegel tells us that this event itself cannot be the object of speculative science.22 The primal germ of the history of spirit itself does not yet belong to the history that necessarily ensues from it. History, according to Hegel, can only be comprehended when the first enlightenment of the world has resulted in the development of states. The development of a language merely prepares the true history of spirit. What Hegel calls “the inorganic existence of spirit” belongs to a dark and hidden prehistory, which for that reason must be excluded from world history.23 At a time when spirit had hardly begun to organize itself, that is, unfold itself into the organs that we call culture, people somehow must somewhere have begun to speak. But at that time they had not yet found the words to name this event itself, let alone to write about it. Only Hegel, at the end of a certain history of spirit, finds the appropriate words to describe how the “realm of sounds” developed and spread while this spreading itself remained dumb and happened soundlessly and stealthily:

Since such conditions must be fulfilled before history is possible, it has happened that so rich and immeasurable an enterprise as the growth of families into tribes and of tribes into nations … has taken place without giving rise to history; and what is more, that the concomitant expansion and development of the realm of spoken sounds has itself remained dumb, and has taken place in a silent and stealthy manner.24

But if language is the primordial self-organization of a yet inorganic spirit, grounding all other modes of spiritual life, should thinking not attempt to achieve true knowledge of this very event?

Contrary to the conclusion that one may be tempted to draw, Hegel's reticence with respect to the prehistory of spirit is fully in accordance with the basic principle of speculative science. This science seeks to reconstruct as far as possible what is “logical” in our reality, that is, what can be conceived as an expression of the movement of self-conception which gradually realizes itself in nature and history. Not everything can or should be regarded as an expression of the pure concept. Hegel has no difficulty whatsoever in acknowledging that the world is largely handed over to chance, disorder, and random exteriority. True science should not even attempt to answer questions concerning, for instance, specific colours and habits of plants and animals. To conceive itself, the movement of self-conception has to abandon itself to the abundant exteriority proper to nature. The products of nature are but the failed attempts of nature to reflect on itself, Schelling wrote. In line with him, Hegel argues in the Encyclopaedia that nature itself lacks the power to determine the particular features of its products from within and has to submit them to outside determinations.25 Due to this “powerlessness of nature” itself, philosophy must acknowledge its borders and not attempt to achieve knowledge of what is not knowable. Hegel thus admits that philosophy itself lacks the power to grasp the hazardous whims of nature.26

No one would maintain, of course, that the advent of language is just one of these whims. This most unnatural flash of lightning is a true and absolutely necessary result of the movement in which the pure concept gains more and more power over its own exteriority. But although language is doubtlessly a “product” of this movement, Hegel takes care to distinguish this primal act of intelligence from the acts accomplished by a will that is conscious of its own freedom.27 Thus, the advent of language seems to have taken place in a twilight zone between nature and spirit. This twilight hardly permits us to see nature hesitantly beginning to turn itself inside out, that is, to turn its exteriority into interiority. It is, as yet, too dark to see how man, in this no-man's land, hesitantly begins to defer his immediate desires and thus to chase away the darkness of his surrounding world. The enlightening words that he begins to speak however, not only prepare the true advent of spirit, but also begin to separate man from what he names. Language, then, grounds both the cleft between subject and object and the long history of attempts to restore their secret bond. In this history, spirit becomes increasingly capable of exteriorizing itself in such a way that its outside remains equal to its inside. Yet, until its very end, spirit will not cease to express itself by means of its first and innermost exteriority, that is to say, language.28

If the philosophy of world history is unable to comprehend the advent of language, perhaps we should briefly turn to what the Logic tells us about language. After all, the life of spirit not only presupposes nature, but is, like nature itself, ultimately grounded in the necessary self-realization of the pure concept which is articulated and comprehended in the Science of Logic.29 The Logic unfolds and explains the totality of pure categories which underlie both our understanding of reality and reality itself as we understand it. These categories can be conceived as the different possible perspectives which do not just allow us to attain knowledge, but construct reality itself insofar as it is true reality, that is, insofar as it is knowable. In the beginning of the Logic, Hegel remarks that these pure forms of thinking are initially laid down in the language of man:

The forms of thought are initially displayed and stored in human language. … Into all that becomes something inward for men, an image or conception as such, into all that he makes his own, language has penetrated, and everything that he has transformed into language and expresses in it contains a category—concealed, mixed with other forms or clearly determined as such.30

At first, [the categories] enter consciousness separately and so are variable and mutually confusing; consequently they afford to mind only a fragmentary and uncertain actuality; the loftier business of logic therefore is to clarify these categories and in them to raise mind to freedom and truth.31

The Logic does nothing but systematically develop or reconstruct the totality of these categories insofar as they are purely logical and not mingled with sensible representations. “Red” or “tomato” are not pure categories, but “being,” “something,” and “quality” are. That is why Hegel explains at the end of the book that the Logic cannot begin with sense-perception, but has to start out from the most immediate mode of thinking.32 All sensible representations depend on time and space, and these pure forms of exteriority are explicitly excluded from the realm of the Logic.33 Because natural language always involves the exteriority of temporal succession and consists of arbitrary relations between sound and meaning, the Logic cannot speak of impure, natural language itself.34 Thus, we are left with a Logic which remains as dumb and soundless with regard to the primal advent of language itself as the philosophy of spirit.

Hegel, however, does not hesitate to call the logical movement of the concept itself “the original word.” This original word is said to be an exteriorization, but one which disappears as soon as it takes place.35 The concept itself differentiates itself from within, unfolds itself into the totality of its necessary determinations, while remaining within its own realm of purity and transparence. Silently, the concept explains itself to itself in its own self-conceiving movement. According to Hegel, its self-differentiation and self-articulation are not yet dependent on the differentiating force of time. This might be explained as follows. The pure category “being” is the first result of the self-determining movement of the concept and as such underlies everything we say about beings. In order to make possible a certain approach to beings, the category itself does not, however, have to be explicitly articulated. Its articulation may remain silent and hidden in natural languages. Although the inner, logical development of “being” into all the other categories is in a certain sense dependent on natural, or historical, language, namely, insofar as it needs this language to actually take place, language does not therefore essentially determine that development.36 That is why the Logic can reconstruct the development of the totality of pure concepts as it is in itself. Again, Hegel would not deny that this development can only actually take place after man has somehow begun to speak. In order to truly realize itself, the concept which is the germ of all concepts must submerge itself into natural language. This event can be considered a “repetition” of the concept's primal incarnation in nature. In order to grow and come to its true fruition, the original word must translate itself into the element of exteriority and turn itself into the natural languages of man. The categories hide themselves within the spoken words and silently wait until philosophy finds the words to call them by their proper names. Imagine, for instance, Parmenides saying “being” for the first time and thereby allowing the development of the totality of pure categories to actually take place and, restless, aspire to its absolute fulfillment.37 The concept, then, accomplishes its “linguistic turn” in order to gradually retrieve its own purity and become fully transparent for itself. The silent, inner self-articulation of the concept gradually takes place in what we call the history of philosophy, waiting for Hegel's Logic to finally comprehend the totality of its determinations and the inner logic of the movement which brings them about.

Hegel, for his part, must speak in order to let the concept finally return to its original silence. His words are bound to the linearity of time, certainly, but no longer to the arbitrariness of sense-perception. Thoughts need words to unfold themselves and blossom. The Encyclopaedia remarks with respect to language: “We only know about our thoughts and we only have definite, real thoughts, when we give them the form of objectivity, the form of being distinguished from our interiority, that is, the shape of exteriority.”38 Hegel adds, however, that this exteriority is specific in that it bears the stamp of the highest interiority. Language, then, is regarded as spirit's most proper, innermost exteriority. Thoughts that express themselves in the element of language do not get lost in this exteriorization but preserve their purity. They become different when spoken aloud, but this difference is indifferent to them. Hegel, then, writing his Logic, is able to let the silent self-differentiation of the absolute concept take place in a way which is no longer affected by the arbitrariness of sounds. Here, pure thought itself is given its objective form. While natural languages are such that the form of objectivity always produces a cleft between a name and that which it names, that is, between subject and object, we may infer that this cleaving no longer takes place in the language of the Logic itself.39 Its categories no longer refer to any sense-perception, to anything which is not of the element of the concept itself—they just are what they are. This is, in fact, also true for traditional philosophical language: concepts such as “being,” “ground,” and “infinity” are always already different from natural language insofar as they do not pertain to objects perceived by the senses; they only become different from what they are in traditional philosophy insofar as Hegel deprives them of their independence to let their meaning be exclusively determined by the sequence of the Logic. What matters, then, are not the separate names of the categories, nor even the speculative sentences that articulate these categories, but the whole, that is to say, the movement in which the Logic uncovers the traditionally established categories as finite moments of the movement in which the absolute concept determines itself.40 This is an astonishing achievement. It is so astonishing that one would almost forget the silent germination of language through which the development of the concept first became possible. The self-conception of the absolute concept seems to shout down the perhaps even more astonishing advent of language as such. Perhaps it does not want to acknowledge that it somehow remains dependent on the innermost nature of natural language which it claims to have left behind. Perhaps it is necessary, then, to lend our ears once more to the nature of language as such.


Whenever someone calls something by its name or predicates something of something, the thing is wrested away from the darkness that surrounds it and brought within the realm of meaningfulness. As Hegel remarks in his Jena lectures, man gives rise to the being of an animal by naming it “donkey” and hence by distinguishing between the actual animal, which does not belong to the realm of spirit, and the logos of the animal, which does, that is to say, which can be the object of empirical knowledge. As soon as one calls a donkey a donkey, one necessarily “kills” the perceived animal in order for it to rise from the dead and become part of the realm of logos. Hegel acknowledges that this realm can only develop at the cost of the experience of the singular being. The sensible “this” that I intend when I see, hear, or touch something can never be reached by language.41 And yet, he considers language to be the only means whereby the animal that I see has a chance to become knowable, that is to say, to become truly present for me. Language thus sacrifices a certain kind of accidental presence in order to achieve a mode of presence which no longer depends on my encounter of actual things; I am not dependent on the actual presence of things which can also be absent to be able to speak about them.

In his essay “Literature and the Right to Death” Blanchot emphasizes the irreparable loss of the singular that occurs through language. That which gives birth to the word, he writes, is also killed by it.42 The “terrible force” of language which allows beings to arrive in the world is based on the exclusion of their singular existence. Blanchot no longer considers the loss of this singularity to be a loss that can be recompensed by the richness of language; that is why literature in a way turns against the natural tendency of language and, driven by a deep restlessness, engages in the search for a moment that precedes language.43 Blanchot remarks that the distance between one and the world brought about by the negating force of language constitutes at the same time the condition of every understanding of beings.44 One might add to this that it is only from within language that the singular existence of a thing can be experienced as something that transcends language. There is no conscious relation to beings into which language has not already intruded, and their immediate, singular existence or “in-itself” has always already absented itself to give rise to that which can be present for us.

However, I do not consider the loss of singularity entailed by language to be the most convincing starting point for a critique of Hegelian thought. The exclusion of the singular existence of beings which gives rise to their presence for us might itself be based on the exclusion of a more essential absence, that is to say, on the exclusion of an absence that pervades presence as such. This primordial exclusion of absence occurs as soon as language intrudes into life to separate human beings from their environment and first makes it possible for things to be experienced as present or absent. Whenever someone speaks, whenever logos takes place in the world, something is brought into presence. Thus, one might consider the openness within which things appear as meaningful to be made possible by an ontological perspective which allows beings to appear as present beings in the first place. This horizon of presentness, as Heidegger calls it, first allows us to call something “big,” “donkey,” or “frightening” and to implicitly distinguish all kinds of categories. Each objectivity brought about by language would thus be grounded in a perspective of presentness. As this perspective grounds the possibility of speaking, it also brings about the cleft between the subject which speaks and that which is spoken about. Or rather, the emerging of the perspective of presentness is itself the emerging of the “in-between” which first brings about the difference between human beings and their world.

Heidegger would not hesitate to admit that language as such enacts the cleaving between subject and object, essence and appearance, inside and outside. Neither would he deny that this cleft is truly overcome by Hegel's Logic. He would add, however, that the horizon of presentness that grounds every objectivity cannot itself be brought to the fore from within the framework delimited by the Logic. Heidegger maintains that this presentness constitutes the most primordial “element” of the absolute concept, which is incapable of reflecting on the essential absence that it must have excluded from its domain in order to accomplish itself. He remarks in a text on Hegel from 1938-39 that thinking can develop into absolute knowing only by turning away from “the most secret condition, of which it is not able to free itself.”45 According to him, Hegel from the outset conceives of being as pure presence: “What holds for Hegel's non-concept of being however, holds in a more essential way … for being in a broader sense, for the absolute idea—that is, for the sightedness (Gesichtetheit) that sees and mirrors itself, that is to say, for self-present presence.”46

The horizon within which being presents itself as pure presence by excluding the absence by which it is pervaded from itself not only opens up the space within which beings can appear as beings, but also grounds the movement in which the concept determines itself as the basic category “being” and consequently develops itself into all the other pure categories. Even the highest category, the absolute concept, can be considered as blind with regard to the horizon of presentness which first brought it to germination. It may be, then, that the movement of self-conception can only achieve its self-transparency by turning away from the opaqueness of its hidden ground.47 Despite its absolute self-reflection, the concept cannot conceive the secret presentness which remains hidden in both natural and conceptual language and constitutes their ultimate condition of possibility. Heidegger would say that speculative thinking may have surpassed all other philosophies in freeing itself from time, space, and all the other natural ties to the world, but that its conceptual language no less binds it to the confined perspective of presentness. From within this perspective, the highest possibility of human life can be conceived only as a mode of thinking which has overcome the finitude proper to all the other modes of human life and human understanding. But what if human life were marked by a finitude which remains the hidden ground of all our efforts to surmount it? Hegel's Logic would then no longer appear as the highest mode of thinking, but as one of the greatest attempts of thinking to escape its innermost nature. Although Hegel accepts both the powerlessness of nature and of a spirit which has not yet freed itself from its natural otherness, he could never have imagined that a certain powerlessness belongs to the nature of thinking and speaking as such.

Our thinking lacks the power, it seems, to free itself from the perspective of presentness and objectivity. The logos which is ours hardly grants us the words to describe this lacking itself. Soundlessly and stealthily, it withdraws itself into the darkness as soon as the flash of lightning which we call spirit strikes the world for the first time. Imagine the innermost finitude withdrawing itself while it consents to be translated into the language of self-conception, a language foreign to it. This language, transparent, yet blind to what is other than presence, cannot present itself as a translation of something that remains hidden behind it. Imagine, then, the innermost finitude waiting for a different perspective and a translation that might do justice to it. Should not our language attempt to enact itself as a finite translation of a finiteness which secretly pervades our life, our thinking, and our history? Does not the most finite movement of what can no longer be named “concept” silently call for such a different language—for yet different tongues?


  1. G. W. F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik I, p. 20 / Hegel's Science of Logic, translated by A. V. Miller (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1989), p. 31. Hereafter, I will refer to these as WL / SL. Unless stated otherwise, Hegel's texts are quoted from G. W. F. Hegel: Werke, edited by E. Moldenhauer and K. M. Michel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986).

  2. Cf. G. W. F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1988), p. 335 / Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 308. Hereafter I will refer to these as Phen. Hegel considers language “the perfect element, in which interiority is just as external as externality is interior” (Phen. p. 473 / p. 439, translation modified).

  3. See for the latter position, among many others, H.-G. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: J. B. C. Mohr, 1960), pp. 385, 398 / Truth and Method, translated by J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (London: Sheed and Ward, 1989), pp. 407-408, 421.

  4. Elsewhere I have systematically investigated Heidegger's critique of metaphysics and the way he seeks to overcome Hegel's philosophy. See my Thinking in the Light of Time: Heidegger's Encounter with Hegel (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000). Insofar as the interpretation of Hegel's conception of thought and language I propose in the present article starts out from Hegel, it may be considered as complementing the book on Heidegger and Hegel; it is only the latter's argumentation, however, that I believe truly sustains the critique of Hegel indicated at the end of the article.

  5. I should mention here the well-known passage of the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit which explains the difference between the classical subject-predicate proposition and the articulation of the dialectical movement of thought. Since one single proposition is incapable of expressing this movement, it of itself calls for the articulation of the contrary that already inheres in the first proposition (Phen. pp. 47-48 / pp. 39-40). However, Hegel here also limits himself to the formal aspect of the articulation of speculative truth and does not mention the role of language in this respect. In the Logic, he praises the German language for its capacity to let some words express contrary meanings; thus, containing their contrary within themselves, these words attest to the “speculative spirit” of this language. Hegel is reasonable enough, though, to consider this merely a fortunate coincidence (WL I, pp. 20, 114 / SL pp. 32, 107).

  6. WL II, p. 295 / SL p. 618.

  7. Cf. WL II, p. 400 / SL pp. 702-703.

  8. Cf. on the “original word”: WL II, p. 550 / SL p. 825, and on the “dead bones of logic”: WL I, p. 48 / SL p. 53. Jean Hyppolite's book Logique et existence (Paris: PUF, 1952), the first part of which is entitled “Langage et logique,” is at least partly devoted to the question as to how being can articulate itself in man and how, conversely, man can become universal consciousness by virtue of language (p. 6). This leads Hyppolite to ask in what way Hegel's own language, which consists in the articulation of the essential, differs from the natural or human language of which it is born (pp. 31, 65). In order to answer this question, he mainly elaborates on Hegel's analysis of language in the Encyclopaedia (pp. 35-42) and on the remarks concerning the speculative proposition in the Introduction of the Phenomenology of Spirit (pp. 185-94). He concludes that the ultimate “element” of language and thought, in which being and meaning reflect one another, is the logos (p. 246). I do not quite see, however, how this determination of the logos provides an answer to the central questions of the book. Josef Simon, in Das Problem der Sprache bei Hegel (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1966), also starts out from the question concerning the essence of language. He maintains that this question bears on the system as such and hence cannot be elaborated in a specific part of the Encyclopaedia (pp. 15, 171).

  9. In The Company of Words: Hegel, Language, and Systematic Philosophy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), John McCumber also distances himself from interpretations that either focus on Hegel's all-encompassing system or on the texts that bear on the finite and historical side of reality (p. 20). According to him, however, Hegel is not trying to reconcile God and history, or time and eternity, but “is simply trying to coordinate two different sets of words: those actually in use around him, belonging to a historically developed … language called High German; and the reformed company [of words] produced by his System itself” (p. 24). Thus distinguishing between historical “representational names” and “names as such,” McCumber argues that only the latter are fully capable of expressing philosophical thought. This linguistic approach entails, I think, a few problems. First, it seems very improbable that the relation between philosophical thought and language can be sufficiently clarified by reducing the whole of Hegel's work to a “rational reform of language” (p. 20). Second, McCumber's interpretation presupposes a questionable opposition between conceptual comprehension and extraphilosophical or extralinguistic reality: the System is said to be able to comprehend the extraphilosophical world (cf. pp. 20, 328). Since McCumber does not seem to distinguish between the language that pertains to sense-experience and the language of traditional, pre-Hegelian philosophy, he fails to see that all philosophical concepts are different from empirical concepts in that they do not pertain to objects that can be experienced by the senses, and hence have no referents. Therefore, it does not make sense to distinguish between philosophy and extraphilosophical reality or between thought and matter here (cf. WL I, p. 43 / SL p. 49). Hegel's system pertains to reality only insofar as it can become the object of philosophical knowledge, that is to say, only insofar as its phenomena attest to the essential dynamic of self-determination: “chemism,” “life,” and “love” are not representational names if such names are supposed to indicate something that exists in the world independent of our interpretation of that world. Third, once McCumber has reduced the problem of conceptuality to the problem of language he has to answer the question as to how the system can accomplish the synthesis between (historical) representational names and (immanent) names as such (p. 307). I do not see why one should take recourse to the idea that the system develops itself by taking up an existing representational name that is merely homonymous with the name as such that articulates a pure moment of the system (p. 309). The only, but decisive, difference between Hegel's system and traditional philosophy is that Hegel uncovers the totality of pure concepts as the result of the self-determining movement of the absolute concept and hence no longer takes them as independent entities.

  10. F. W. J. Schelling, “Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur. Als Einleitung in das Studium dieser Wissenschaft,” in Schellings Werke, Vol. 1, edited by M. Schröter (München: Beck, 1927), p. 705 / Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, translated by E. E. Harris and P. Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 41 (translation modified).

  11. F. W. J. Schelling, System des transzendentalen Idealismus (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1992), p. 11 / System of Transcendental Idealism, translated by P. Heath (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), p. 6.

  12. Schelling, “Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur,” p. 706 / Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, p. 42.

  13. The concept that constitutes the foundation of all specific concepts “is not sensuously intuited or represented; it is solely an object, a product and content of thinking, and it is the absolute, self-subsistent matter (Sache), the logos, the reason (Vernunft) of that which is, the truth of what determines the name of things; it is least of all the logos which should be left outside the science of logic” (WL I, p. 30 / SL p. 39, translation modified). In the Logic the concept is understood to sublate the one-sidedness of the basic categories “being” and “essence” (cf. WL II, pp. 15-16 / SL p. 391). Aristotle calls that through which something is what it is the logos of a thing, that is to say, its essence, ultimate cause and principle. Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983 a 29.

  14. In his early text on Fichte and Schelling, Hegel designates the totality to which the sciences of nature and spirit aspire the “self-construction of the absolute.” G. W. F. Hegel, “Differenz des Fichteschen und Schellingschen Systems der Philosophie,” in Jenaer Schrifte, p. 111 / The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's Systems of Philosophy, translated by H. S. Harris and W. Cerf (Albany: SUNY Press, 1977), p. 170.

  15. Since the Logic is not concerned with space and time, it cannot, like the Phenomenology of Spirit, start out from immediate sense-perception. The beginning of the Logic is not “an immediate of sensuous intuition or of representation, but of thinking, which on account of its immediacy may also be called a supersensuous, inner intuition” (WL II, p. 553 / SL pp. 827-28). Hegel would maintain, however, that the enactment of empirical sense-perception and of the concept's self-determination into the category “being”—such that this category first opens up the perspective within which beings can be experienced as beings—are two sides of the same coin. According to the Phenomenology, the “truth” of sense-perception consists in the affirmation that something “is”; its truth solely contains the being of the object (Phen. p. 69 / p. 58).

  16. Cf.: “Therefore we must not take the identity of soul and body as a mere connection, but in a deeper way, i.e., we must regard the body and its members as the existence of the systematic articulation of the concept itself. In the members of the living organism the concept gives to its determinations an external being in nature. …” G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I, p. 161, cf. pp. 177-78 / Aesthetics, Lectures on Fine Art, Vol. 1, translated by T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 119, cf. p. 132; cf. Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften III, pp. 19-20 / Hegel's Philosophy of Mind, translated by W. Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 9-11 (§381, add.).

  17. Hegel, Enzyklopädie III, p. 21 / Hegel's Philosophy of Mind, p. 11 (§381, add.). In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel states that whenever we address something we do not articulate its singularity, but solely that which constitutes its universality and hence belongs to the sphere of what is universal in itself, that is to say, to consciousness (Phen. pp. 77-78 / p. 66).

  18. Cf. G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie I, p. 41 / Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, translated by E. S. Haldane (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), pp. 22-23.

  19. “The point of transition, the middle term through which identity constructing itself as nature passes over to identity constructing itself as intelligence, is the internalization of the light of nature, the lightning stroke of the ideal upon the real, as Schelling calls it, its self-constitution as point.” Hegel, Jenaer Schrifte, p. 111 / The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's Systems of Philosophy, p. 170, cf. F. W. J. Schelling, “Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie,” in Schellings Werke, Vol. 3, edited by M. Schröter (München: Beck, 1927), p. 101 (§145).

  20. As in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel in his Jena lectures on the philosophy of spirit from 1805-1806 calls language the true being of spirit as spirit. Through language, man articulates the being of objects, as distinguished from what appears to him through mere sense-perception: “Thus, it is through the name that the object is born out of the I as being. This is the first creating force that spirit exerts. Adam gave a name to all things. This is … the first appropriation of nature as a whole, or its creation by spirit. … Spirit relates to itself; it says to the donkey: you are something interior (ein Innres) and this interiority am I, and your being is a sound that I have arbitrarily invented. Donkey is a sound, which is something entirely different from the sensible being itself.” That is to say, by naming an animal “donkey,” man gives rise to the essence or being of this animal and thus distinguishes the actual animal, which does not belong to the realm of spirit itself, from the animal insofar as it does belong to the realm of spirit and hence is of the same nature as the I. G. W. F. Hegel, Jenaer Realphilosophie (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1969), pp. 183-84 / Hegel and the Human Spirit, translated by L. Rauch (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), pp. 89-90 (translation modified); cf. G. W. F. Hegel, Jenaer Systementwürfe I: Das System der spekulativen Philosophie (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1986), p. 201 / System of Ethical Life and First Philosophy of Spirit, translated by H. Harris and T. M. Knox (Albany: SUNY Press, 1979), pp. 221-22.

  21. This does not mean that Hegel would consider the advent of speech an empirical, historical event determining the concept's development. On the contrary, it is, from his perspective, always the essential self-determination of the concept that determines the course of history insofar as that course is rational or essential.

  22. G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte I (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1955), p. 162 / Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Introduction: Reason in History, translated by H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 134. Hereafter I will refer to these as VPW / LPW.

  23. VPW pp. 162, 167 / LPW pp. 134, 138. I will not consider Hegel's problematic identification of this “prehistory” with the African world, in which, according to him, spirit is still “unconscious of itself” and immediately united with nature (cf. ibid., p. 218 / p. 178). See on this issue R. Bernasconi, “Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti,” in Hegel after Derrida, edited by S. Barnett (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 41-63.

  24. VPW p. 166 / LPW p. 137 (translation modified).

  25. “The powerlessness of nature is to be attributed to its only being able to maintain the conceptual determinations in an abstract manner, and to its exposing the realization of the particular to external determinability.” G. W. F. Hegel, Enzyklopädie II, p. 203 / Hegel's Philosophy of Nature, edited and translated by M. J. Petry (London and New York: Humanities Press, 1970), p. 215 (translation modified) (§250, cf. §248 rem.).

  26. “This powerlessness on the part of nature sets limits to philosophy, and it is the height of pointlessness to demand of the concept that it should explain, and as it is said, construe or deduce these contingent products of nature. …” Ibid., p. 203 / p. 215 (translation modified) (§250 rem.).

  27. VPW p. 166 / LPW p. 137. In Language and Death (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), G. Agamben focuses on the “originary articulation of language” that consists in the passage from phoné to logos and cannot itself be articulated by means of human discourse (p. 84, cf. p. 34). He considers Western philosophy to have been incapable of reflecting on this “unspeakable foundation” (p. 66). By calling this event “the Voice” (p. 35) Agamben puts a name to a complex of philosophical problems concerning language. In my view, however, this name promises more than it actually achieves and certainly does not provide solutions to these problems. I do not see, for instance, what the following remark seeks to contribute: “The Voice is the originary ethical dimension in which man pronounces his “yes” to language and consents that it may take place” (p. 87).

  28. See on this M. Clark, Logic and System (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971), p. 45. Whereas Hegel considers this separation the necessary condition of the overcoming of the cleft between thinking and that which is thought, Clark proposes to interpret language as an exteriority or otherness which from the outset constitutes the “unintelligible” of the Hegelian system and cannot be fully incorporated into it. Language thus causes thinking to remain always less than the whole to which it aspires (X-XI, p. 75). However, it would be more difficult to defend this view against Hegel if one considered that Hegel only demands of language that it adequately articulate philosophical thought and that language according to him does not resist this (cf. Hegel, Enzyklopädie III, p. 239 / Hegel's Philosophy of Mind, p. 187, §444 add.; see also McCumber, The Company of Words, p. 244). Insofar as language is unintelligible and arbitrary it is of no concern to philosophy, for the whole to which philosophy aspires is only the whole of reality insofar as it is intelligible, that is to say, worthy to be called “reality.”

  29. “Actual mind … has external nature for its proximate, and the logical idea for its first, presupposition.” Hegel, Enzyklopädie III, p. 18 / Hegel's Philosophy of Mind, p. 8 (§381, add.).

  30. WL I, p. 20 / SL p. 31 (translation modified).

  31. WL I, p. 27 / SL p. 37.

  32. WL II, p. 553 / SL pp. 827-28.

  33. “[T]he concrete forms assumed by the logical categories in nature, which would be space and time,” can be of no concern to the logical science (WL II, p. 257 / SL p. 586). Therefore the Logic, unlike the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Spirit, cannot comprehend the concrete appearances of consciousness either: “[T]he idea of spirit as the subject matter of logic already stands within the pure science; it has not therefore to watch spirit progressing through its entanglements with nature, with immediate determinateness and material things, or with representation. … In the logical idea of spirit, therefore, the ‘I’ is immediately the free concept … which in its judgments is itself its object …” (WL II, p. 496 / SL p. 782, translation modified).

  34. “In respect of spirit and its works, just as in the case of nature, we must guard against being so far misled by a well-meant endeavour after rational language, as to try to exhibit the necessity of phenomena which are marked by a decided contingency. … Thus in language (although it be, as it were, the body of thought) chance still unquestionably plays a decided part; and the same is true of the creations of law, art, etc.” (Hegel, Enzyklopädie I, p. 286 / Hegel's Logic, p. 206, translation modified [§145, add.]). See on this D. J. Cook, Language in the Philosophy of Hegel (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1973), p. 158. Hegel notes in the third part of the Encyclopaedia that it is precisely the arbitrary relation between sound and meaning, that is, the sign-character of language, which allows thinking to direct itself to the meaning of words without being disturbed by their sensible side (Enzyklopädie III, p. 269 / Hegel's Philosophy of Mind, p. 212, §457 add.). Josef Simon regards Hegel's conception of the sign-character of language as the presupposition of the whole Hegelian system: only if words, as signs, guarantee an immediate and unambiguous access to their meaning can Hegel—implicitly—presuppose that language is the fundamental precondition of his system and at the same time maintain that his scientific system does not presuppose anything (Simon, Das Problem der Sprache bei Hegel, pp. 171-72, 177-79).

  35. “Hence the Logic exhibits the self-movement of the absolute idea only as the original word, which is an externalization or utterance (Äusserung), but an externalization which is such that it, as something external, has immediately vanished again when it comes into being; the idea is, therefore, only in this self-determination of apprehending itself; it is in pure thought, in which difference is not yet otherness, but is and remains perfectly transparent to itself” (WL II, p. 550 / SL p. 825, translation modified).

  36. I believe that Hegel's argumentation here and elsewhere is based on a distinction between two different ways for something to be dependent on something else. Thus, history is in a certain sense dependent on time to actually accomplish itself, while its essential phases are nevertheless determined solely by the dialectical self-overcoming of the one-sidedness proper to the former phase. Likewise, speculative thought needs the work of discursive understanding to accomplish itself by sublating the oppositions that this understanding brings about, while it does not need to let itself be determined by discursive understanding. In other words, Hegel must rigorously distinguish between the subordinate, secondary means that are necessary to actually accomplish a movement and the principle that governs this movement from beginning to end without ever being seriously threatened by these means. In “Absolute Reflexion und Sprache,” Werner Marx addresses the issue of the subservience of language to thought concluding that language, in making thought manifest, is indeed a “servant” to thought, albeit a servant that preserves a certain self-dependence (W. Marx, “Absolute Reflexion und Sprache,” in Natur und Geschichte: Festschrift für Karl Löwith, edited by H. Braun and M. Riedel [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1967], p. 253). If one feels unsatisfied with this straightforward affirmation of Hegel's own view, one possible way of deconstructing the presuppositions that guide Hegel's philosophy would be to question Hegel's effort to maintain a rigid distinction between the necessary means and the determining principle on so many levels of his philosophy, while the famous section on the master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology precisely shows this distinction to be untenable.

  37. Ordinary thinking, as Hegel remarks in the Logic, “must be referred back to the previously-mentioned beginning of science made by Parmenides, who purified and elevated his own figurate conception and so, too, that of posterity, to pure thought, to being as such, and thereby created the element of science” (WL I, p. 90 / SL p. 88). This is the element in which pure thought can subsequently develop its different stages: “Now in reference to this idea, I maintain that the sequence in the systems of philosophy in history is similar to the sequence in the logical deduction of the conceptual determinations of the idea. I maintain that if the fundamental concepts of the systems appearing in the history of philosophy be entirely divested of what regards their outward form, their relation to the particular and the like, the various stages of the determination of the idea are found in their logical concept” (Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie I, p. 49 / Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 30 [translation modified]; cf. Enzyklopädie I, p. 59 / Hegel's Logic, translated by W. Wallace [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975], p. 19 [§14]). Hegel would maintain that the pure categories articulated in the Logic somehow inhere in all languages of Western culture, albeit that each of them has its particular character. Thus the philosophical words “τὸ ὀν,” “sein,” “être,” and “being” can by means of different sounds all indicate the same ontological concept. Being a particular product of Western rationality, the German language allows philosophy to articulate explicitly the categorial distinctions that can—more or less clearly—also be found in other languages; thus, according to Hegel, in many languages the word “is” is used in a way different from the word “exist” (cf. WL II, p. 407 / SL pp. 708-709). And if it is actually the specific structure of, for instance, Greek grammar that led Greek philosophers to explicitly articulate certain ontological distinctions, then this only means that the implicit, silent self-articulation of the absolute concept began as soon as speech itself.

  38. Hegel, Enzyklopädie III, p. 280 / Hegel's Philosophy of Mind, p. 221 (translation modified) (§462 add.).

  39. Josef Simon conceives of the essence of language as its capacity to overcome or sublate the cleft between subject and object. At the same time he holds that language itself entails the occultation of this essence; the essence of language must appear in finite, concrete languages, which precisely bring about objectivity and hence the opposition between subject and object (Simon, Das Problem der Sprache bei Hegel, pp. 13-14, 179, 182). Simon thus seems to consider the Logic as manifesting the essence of language: the experience of the absolute, he notes, accomplishes itself as the experience of the essence of language (pp. 13, 15), that is to say, of the capacity of language to overcome the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity which it also must bring about. However, Simon mainly elaborates on Hegel's analysis of the human aspects of language such as the voice (cf. pp. 55-62, 69-74).

  40. See Marx, “Absolute Reflexion und Sprache,” p. 247, cf. Phen. pp. 34-35 / pp. 26-28. Marx rightly notes that while the actual sentences of the Logic consist in much more than pure categories, the Logic “moves, as it were, beyond the individual sentences” to achieve the logical cohesion of these categories (p. 248).

  41. Phen. pp. 77-78 / p. 66.

  42. M. Blanchot, “La littérature et le droit à la mort,” in La part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), p. 329. Cf. F. Dastur, La mort: essai sur la finitude (Paris: Hatier, 1994), p. 76.

  43. Blanchot, “La littérature et le droit à la mort,” p. 329.

  44. Ibid., p. 326.

  45. M. Heidegger, Hegel (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1993) (GA 68), p. 32 (my translation).

  46. Ibid., p. 31.

  47. On this point, there seems to be little difference between Heidegger and Derrida. The latter also conceives of the domain of metaphysics as limited by presence and based on the exclusion of what it cannot incorporate. However, Derrida in some of his (later) texts emphasizes not so much the prevailing of presence, as Heidegger does, but rather the exclusion of something that is neither a being nor an ontological event. In Glas, for instance, he asks: “Is there not always an element excluded from the system which assures the space of the system's possibility?” This question primarily pertains to Hegel's incapacity to provide a systematic place for the figure of the sister; the sister undermines as it were the system from within precisely because she refuses to be interpreted as either a particular living being—Hegel's sister—or a universal moment in the dialectical development of the family. Derrida thus seems even to try to overcome or avoid the difference between the level of beings (Blanchot) and of being (Heidegger) (J. Derrida, Glas II [Paris: Denoël / Gonthier, 1981], p. 227 / Glas, translated by J. P. Leavey and R. Rand [Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1986], p. 162. Cf. S. Critchley, “A Commentary Upon Derrida's Reading of Hegel in Glas,” in Hegel after Derrida, esp. pp. 208-10).

Michael Buckley (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Buckley, Michael. “Irony and the ‘We’ in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.CLIO 31, no. 3 (spring 2002): 279-300.

[In the following essay, Buckley surveys the use of “we” in The Phenomenology of Spirit and claims that Hegel employs the term as an ironic component of his portrayal of consciousness in the work.]

Although all readers of the Phenomenology of Spirit are familiar with Hegel's device of the “we” (wir) that is employed throughout it, very little commentary exists on the meaning of the “we.” None of this commentary has noted the connection between this device and the trope of irony, a trope that since Socrates has been associated closely with philosophical modes of experience and thought. In this essay, I will consider what has been said about the “we” and suggest that irony is the best way for comprehending how the “we” ultimately functions in Hegel's portrait of consciousness.

When a person reads the Phenomenology of Spirit, he or she takes a journey through the history of consciousness itself. It is a long and difficult journey because the truths discovered on it dissolve into falsehoods, and then reappear as truths in a higher form through a dialectic of consciousness that refuses to stand still. This history of consciousness is in fact “the detailed history of the education of consciousness itself to the standpoint of Science.”1 At the standpoint of Science, history has completed itself; self-consciousness, or the universal individual, has achieved absolute knowledge. This knowledge, however, is not guaranteed to reappear in the singular individual (the individual person) simply because he or she is coeval with historical consciousness. Singular individuals, if they are to attain true knowledge, require an education of their own. As Jean Hyppolite has noted, “the problem which the Phenomenology poses is not that of world history but that of the education of the specific individual who must, necessarily, be formed to knowledge by becoming aware of what Hegel calls his substance.”2 Making the singular individual aware of his substance by providing “him with the ladder” to the standpoint of Science and “showing him this standpoint within himself” is what the reader of the Phenomenology “has a right to demand” from Science (PS, 14).

From the point of view of the individual who comes to it, the Phenomenology represents a way to Science, or an introduction to Science. It can be viewed as a “forepiece that can be dropped and discarded once the student, through deep immersion in its contents, has advanced through confusions and misunderstanding to the properly philosophical point of view.”3 From the philosophical point of view, the Phenomenology is Science becoming aware of itself. Recollecting the necessary progression of Science, according to Hegel, is already Science: “the way to Science is itself already Science, and hence, in virtue of its content, is the Science of the experience of consciousness” (PS, 56).

This conception of Science creates a paradox that makes interpreting the education of the singular individual difficult. If the introduction to Science is itself already a Science, the pedagogical task of the Phenomenology seems impossible, and is tantamount to Meno's paradox of learning. That is to say, either a person not educated to the level of Science will be unable to follow the introduction to Science because this introduction is already a Science and therefore presupposes knowledge of it, or the introduction to Science will be comprehended by the singular individual because such an individual already possesses knowledge of Science, which means no introduction is needed in the first place. Hegel is able to overcome this paradox because he understands the standpoint of Science as a standpoint existing within the individual. The task of the Phenomenology is merely to show “him this standpoint within himself” (PS, 15). One way Hegel attempts to do this, I will argue, is through an ironic use of the phrase “we,” that is, the Hegelian phenomenologist. Hegel employs irony because “it transfers or turns meaning over to its opposite,”4 and demands self-reflection on the part of the reader, which in turn forces the reader to confront his or her own subjectivity in order to discover the truth of what is being said. Before examining Hegel's ironic use of the “we,” I will explain in greater detail the paradox of learning as it is found in the Phenomenology of Spirit.

To understand the paradox of learning we may inquire into Hegel's phenomenological method and ask whether it provides a solution to this paradox. In his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Kojève claims that the Hegelian method “is purely contemplative and descriptive, or better, phenomenological in Husserl's sense of the term.”5 Hegel corroborates this descriptive interpretation when he states that “It is the coming-to-be of Science as such or of knowledge, that is described in this Phenomenology of Spirit” (PS, 15). The only thing “left for us to do [in this examination] is simply to look on” (PS, 54). Hegel's references to a descriptive method, however, do not provide the strongest support for such an interpretation. The most convincing reason for thinking that Hegel's method is descriptive is that it provides a cogent explanation for Hegel's unique positions regarding criterion, consciousness, and the activity of we, the phenomenologists. These positions appear in the Introduction and are well known to anyone familiar with the Phenomenology. Although a descriptive interpretation of Hegel's method is able to account for these positions, I will show that they conflict with Hegel's educational requirements and that this conflict is the source of the paradox of learning as it appears in the Phenomenology of Spirit.

A descriptive interpretation of the Phenomenology helps explain the question of criterion as it is posed by Hegel in the Introduction. Here Hegel suggests that if we were to inquire into the relation of truth to knowledge, the “criterion would lie within ourselves, and that which was to be compared with it and about which a decision would be reached through this comparison would not necessarily have to recognize the validity of such a standard” (PS, 53). However, the relation of truth to knowledge is not the phenomenological object of study in the Phenomenology of Spirit—consciousness is. According to Hegel, what makes consciousness a unique object of study is that it splits itself into two. There is (1) consciousness of some object and (2) a consciousness that this object is for consciousness. In Hegelian terms these two moments are the ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-another,’ ‘object’ and ‘Concept,’ or ‘Truth’ and ‘knowledge.’ These two moments exist within the subject of our investigation. Consequently, “Consciousness provides its own criterion from within itself, so that the investigation becomes a comparison of consciousness with itself … we do not need to import criteria, or to make use of our own bright ideas and thoughts during the course of the inquiry; it is precisely when we leave these aside that we succeed in contemplating the matter in hand as it is in and for itself … all that is left for us to do is simply to look on” (PS, 53-54). Kenley Dove takes the question of criteria to be a primary reason that Hegel's phenomenological method is descriptive, arguing that “the phenomenological method must not interfere with the movement of the subject-matter … it is precisely this internal negative movement which the Hegelian phenomenological method seeks to describe.”6

The question of criteria not only lends support to the idea that Hegel's method is descriptive but also can lead to an interpretation of education that stresses the passive acceptance of the description of consciousness's immanent movement. Heidegger expresses this when he claims that the effort of “we” the readers is to refrain from disturbing the natural movement of consciousness. In Heideggerian language, “we” must let consciousness be.7 Restraining from involving ourselves in the investigation seems to follow from the fact that the development of consciousness is immanent to consciousness. J. N. Findlay notes, “it is not we who must determine its [consciousness] course: it must determine this itself.”8 Although this is true, the “we” does not remain completely passive. For the necessary connections between the stages of consciousness, connections that develop “behind the back” of consciousness, are something contributed by us (PS, 55). The fact that “we” make this contribution suggests that we, the phenomenologists, take an active role in the development of consciousness.

One can argue that because the activity required of the “we” applies to the necessary development between stages of consciousness rather than the dialectical movement that occurs between the “Concept” and “object” within a particular stage of consciousness, a phenomenological description can account for both the activity and passivity of the “we” by making a distinction between the author of the description and those following it. The author, recalling the stages of consciousness from the standpoint of absolute knowing has a privileged perspective on the whole, which is then presented to a reader trying to attain the standpoint of absolute knowledge. Thus, the contribution (and therefore the activity of the “we”) is made by the author, not the reader, of the description.

The argument that the “we” has a privileged perspective of the development of consciousness to the standpoint of Science has been made, in some form or another, by every interpreter of the “we.”9 My argument will not deny this, although it will be stated in very different terms. The problem as it currently stands is that the descriptive interpretation of Hegel's method, which suggests that education occurs through a passive reception of a description, is contrary to Hegel's understanding of education and therefore cannot account for the education of the individual to the standpoint of Science.

Hegel's clearest statement of education is his account of the education of consciousness itself. This education is a long and laborious struggle involving patience, hope, and despair. At each stage, consciousness begins with a certain hope that it has discovered the unity between the “Concept” (Begriff) and “object.” This hope, however, cannot sustain the immanent contradictions revealed through the dialectical movement of consciousness because these contradictions upset the stability and unity that consciousness seeks. Hope gives way to doubt as consciousness unsuccessfully attempts to reconcile these two moments. As consciousness proceeds along the “pathway of doubt,” or more precisely the “way of despair,” it experiences a loss of its own self because it loses the knowledge of what it takes itself to be (PS, 49). This loss results in a new stage of consciousness, which brings with it a renewed hope that consciousness has discovered the unity between the “Concept” and “object.” The process continues as each failed attempt is lifted (aufgehoben) into a higher stage of consciousness until it completes itself in absolute knowing. Consciousness can view its earlier attempts as necessary only after it has achieved the final stage of Absolute Knowledge.

Prior to this final stage, consciousness views each unsuccessful attempt to attain knowledge as a failure. It also views each new stage as a distinct attempt to achieve true knowledge. The transition from one stage of consciousness to the next is experienced by consciousness as a new object. From the perspective of Absolute Knowing, this experience is not what we normally understand it to be; it is not the chance apprehension of what is in and for itself (an und für sich selbst). Rather, it is “that our knowledge of the first object, or the being-for-consciousness of the first in-itself, itself becomes the second object” (PS, 55). The untruth of the first object comes about through a new object that results from the reversal of consciousness itself—through the “dialectical movement which consciousness exercises on itself and which affects both its knowledge and its object” (PS, 55).

The education of consciousness to the standpoint of Science requires experience (Erfahrung), which includes feelings of hope and despair, patience and a “strenuous effort.” Should we expect any less from an individual trying to achieve knowledge? Hegel does not think so. “Since the Substance of the individual, the World-Spirit itself, has had the patience to pass through these shapes over the long passage of time, and to take upon itself the enormous labour of world-history, in which it embodied in each shape as much of its entire content as that shape was capable of holding, and since it could not have attained consciousness of itself by any lesser effort, the individual certainly cannot by the nature of the case comprehend his own substance more easily” (PS, 17). Findlay says: “If Systematic Science is to arise in the individual, he must recapitulate, relive and appropriate this procession of forms in his own experience: he must submit to a personal preparation for Systematic Science which is precisely parallel to the cosmic preparation which has gone on in nature and history.”10

That an individual must relive the stages of consciousness within him or herself “precisely parallel” to that of World-Spirit raises some difficulties. For if we, the phenomenologists, point out the necessary development between the stages of consciousness, a development that originally took place “behind the back of consciousness,” it seems impossible for an individual to experience the coming-to-be of Science as consciousness has experienced it. Consciousness experiences each new stage as distinct and unconnected to any previous stage. If we, the phenomenologists, point out the necessary connections between stages, how can the phenomenologically uneducated individual experience the development of consciousness “precisely parallel” to that of consciousness itself? If access to a privileged perspective means the phenomenologically uneducated individual will not experience the development of consciousness internally, then such an individual cannot experience the loss of his or her own self along the “pathway of doubt,” and will never have feelings of hope or despair. The activity of the “we” expressed by the descriptive interpretation of Hegel's method renders education impossible so long as that education is understood to proceed in a manner “parallel” to World-Spirit. Yet such an education, I shall argue, is required of any individual who is to attain absolute knowledge.

That the education of the individual must be parallel to that of World-Spirit is supported by many quotations throughout the Phenomenology. For example, Hegel tells us that “nothing is known that is not in experience” (PS, 487); and that what is “important in the study of Science, is that one should take on oneself the strenuous effort of the Notion” (PS, 35). But there is another reason for thinking that a descriptive method by itself cannot provide the reader with the requisite education. This reason concerns what Hegel sees to be the “current task” of philosophy, a task involving Hegel's conception of speculative philosophy, which is grounded in the speculative proposition (spekulativer Satz).

The education of consciousness over time, and the experiences associated with it, can be likened to an individual's experience with a speculative proposition. For when we take the Subject of the speculative proposition to be fixed, we miss the immanent movement between the Subject and the Predicate and consequently fail to grasp the Concept (Begriff). This failure often results in confusion and “is in large measure the source of the complaints regarding the unintelligibility of philosophical writings from individuals who otherwise possess the educational requirements for understanding them” (PS, 39). This confusion results from the fact that the usual subject-predicate relation is not at work in the philosophical proposition. Rather, the subject of a speculative proposition passes over into the predicate, “and, by this very fact, has been sublated” (PS, 37). If thought takes the subject to be fixed, it fails to make progress in the transition from subject to predicate and “feels itself checked by the loss of the Subject” (PS, 38). It must go back to the proposition and understand it in a new way. Through this process “we learn by experience that we meant something other than we meant to mean; and this correction of our meaning compels our knowing to go back to the proposition, and understand it in some other way” (PS, 39).

The immanent movement of speculative thinking destroys the passive Subject—the subject as the fixed basis to which predicates are attached. The tendency of philosophers to regard concepts such as “Being,” “Singularity,” or the “One” as fixed points from which to argue prevents philosophy from becoming a Systematic Science. The Phenomenology of Spirit attempts to overcome this tendency by making fixed thoughts fluid. According to Hegel, “the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is an object of thought and that thinks, but rather in just the opposite, in freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality to the universal, and impart to it spiritual life” (PS, 19-20). The education of the individual to the standpoint of Science involves making the individual's thoughts fluid. This education cannot merely rely on description because such a method is one of classification and reference to fixed ideas.11 In order for the Phenomenology to achieve its task, it must involve the reader in the movement of consciousness, a movement that the reader experiences along the “pathway of despair.” But how is it possible for a reader to experience the despair of this movement when the reason for such an experience, that is, ignorance of the necessary connections between the forms of consciousness's immanent movement, is explicitly made apparent to the reader through the efforts of the “we”?

This question remains unanswerable so long as we regard Hegel's method to be merely descriptive. The requirements of education, as expressed above, are entirely contradictory to the activity of the “we” as expressed by the descriptive interpretation of Hegel's method. What is needed is an interpretation that accounts for the requirements of education without upsetting our current explanation of Hegel's account of consciousness and criteria. This can be achieved, I will argue, by understanding the “we” to be an ironic trope. “Irony is a trope close to dialectic in that the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used.”12 Through it, Hegel can recreate the movement of consciousness so that the reader can experience this movement as the reader's own immanent activity. It is only through this movement that the reader can free his or her own determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality to the universal, thereby discovering the standpoint of Science that already exists within the individual.

Most commentators understand the “problem” of the “we” to center on the fact that (1) it appears to refer to the readers of the Phenomenology and (2) it plays a crucial role in the development of consciousness itself to the standpoint of Science.13 This formulation is in fact a poor way of stating the paradox of learning as it is found in the Phenomenology. It results in viewing the “we” as a problem rather than the solution to a problem. It also results in bifurcating the “we” into fixed polar opposites, which precludes any movement between these opposites. On the one side of this bifurcation is the privileged “we,” the “we” that has already achieved the perspective of Absolute Knowing and can therefore play an active role in the development of consciousness. Kojève expresses this view when he claims that the “we” speaks through Hegel from the standpoint of Absolute Knowing.14 However, the need to account for the reader of the Phenomenology results in a contrary characterization of the “we.” For example, Dove claims that “it is of course clear that the “we” is to be taken in the sense familiar to readers of almost any philosophical work, namely, we philosophers who are following the argument in question.”15 If we add to this Parry's observation that “the reader is somehow transformed by the reading of the text,”16 we arrive at the other side of the bifurcated “we.” This side expresses the unprivileged “we,” or the phenomenologically uneducated reader coming to the Phenomenology with the hope that it will provide a “ladder” to the standpoint of Science.

A strong distinction between the “privileged we” and the “unprivileged we” can result in an interpretation that understands the “we” to be representative of some point of view. The privileged “we” represents the point of view of absolute knowing and therefore can describe the necessary connections between stages of consciousness, and the unprivileged “we” represents the reader who passively receives this description. Categorizing the “we” in these terms creates a “fixed” subject, which is more likely to prevent our education than to foster it. On the other hand, no distinction between the “privileged we” and the “unprivileged we” preserves the paradox of learning found in the Phenomenology. Consequently, some distinction is needed but it must be presented in a way that encourages the immanent movement of speculative thought within the reader. This distinction is achieved through an ironic use of the “we.”

The rest of my remarks will trace the ironic movement of the “we” as it appears throughout the first two sections of the Phenomenology. As Dove notes, although commentators have recognized the need for explaining Hegel's use of the term “we,” their explanations have been “remarkably laconic.”17 There are simply few interpretations of the “we” on which to draw. Consequently, the following makes reference to only a few Hegel interpreters.

Hegel's use of irony occurs on the first page of “Sense-Certainty.” In the stage of sense-certainty, consciousness takes what is immediately given to it as true. This ‘immediately given’ is the pure being of the thing, and from the standpoint of consciousness, this pure being is the essential moment—the truth. “We,” however, know what sense-certainty does not know because “we find … that, in sense-certainty, pure being at once splits up into what we have called the two ‘Thises’, one ‘This’ as ‘I’, and the other ‘This’ as object” (PS, 59). Consequently, “we” see what sense-certainty cannot see, that is, the fact that what is immediately given is a mediation between the “I” and “This.”

This suggests that “we” have privileged access to what goes on “behind the back of consciousness.” But this suggestion is not correct. Without “our” knowing it, “we” have been placed directly within the movement of consciousness. “The knowledge or knowing which is at the start or is immediately our object cannot be anything else but immediate knowledge itself, a knowledge of the immediate or of what simply is” (PS, 58, first emphasis added). “We” take knowledge to be our immediate object, and by doing so we find ourselves immersed in the same movement experienced by consciousness. If sense-certainty falls into error because it takes truth to be what is immediately given, then how will “we” avoid falling into the same error if “we” take knowledge to be the immediate object of our investigation?

Ironically, “we” take ‘immediate knowing’ as “our” immediate object when “we” already know that ‘immediate knowing’ splits itself into two moments. “We” see sense-certainty's error and yet repeat it through “our” own activity. This activity is not the activity of “the ‘wir’ and the ‘für uns’ which periodically come into view and break up the flow of experience described” through “unsere Zutat” [our contribution], as interpreted by Dove.18 Dove's interpretation describes the activity of the privileged “we,” an activity that admittedly exists but is not the only activity experienced by the “we” in the Phenomenology. The unprivileged “we” performs an activity of its own, an activity “parallel” to that of consciousness. This activity is one way Hegel accomplishes his task of freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity in order to provide a “ladder” to the standpoint of Science.

The activity of the unprivileged “we” can be seen in the following. “We,” the phenomenologically uneducated readers of Hegel's Phenomenology, start examining the dialectic from the vantage point of the privileged “we”'s “I” and “This,” but begin to wander off into the twofold shape of the “Now” and “Here” of the “This.” This “This” is what sense-certainty considers to be essential. “We” the readers focus on this essential moment (making it our immediate object) and find within it another dialectic, one that takes “us” away from the main dialectic between the “I” and the “This.” At this point “we” are asked by Hegel to carry out a simple experiment—to write an answer to the question: “What is Now?” “Our” answer results in a contradiction, the same contradiction experienced by sense-certainty. “We” have written a truth, “Now is Night,” only to discover that it is not true. “Now” is not night but is day. Consequently, “Now” is “not immediate but mediated; for it is determined as a permanent and self-preserving Now through the fact that something else, viz. Day and Night, is not” (PS, 60). “Our” object, the “Now” and “Here,” which is merely the twofold shape of the “This,” proves to be a “mediated simplicity, or universality” (PS, 61). What is important to note is that “we” experience the mediated simplicity of the “This” through our activity at the same moment sense-certainty experiences it. This experience is the transition from the first essential moment (immediacy) to the second (mediation) (PS, 55 and 61). It is an experience as necessary for “our” education as it is for the education of consciousness.

David Parry's claim—that the “we” has already achieved absolute knowing and that the Phenomenology is the recollection of the “we”'s coming-to-be, i.e., its development toward absolute knowing—comes closer to giving an account of “our” participation in the movement of consciousness than any other interpretation.19 His interpretation, I think, cannot fully account for this activity because it conflates the activity of the privileged “we” with that of the unprivileged “we.” I will have more to say about Parry's interpretation below as the distinct activities between the two “we”s become clearer. Dove's interpretation, although recognizing the activity of the unprivileged “we,” fails to develop a theory explaining it. He does, however, correctly show that Heidegger's interpretation of the “we” cannot account for its active participation in the movement of consciousness because Heidegger understands the effort of the “we” to be its restraint from involving itself in this movement.20

The reversal of consciousness was illustrated by the transition from the first essential moment to the next. What was essential is now unessential, and what was unessential is now essential. The truth of sense-certainty no longer lies in the object immediately given; it now lies in the fact that the object is my object. Immediacy is to be found in the “I” half of the original movement between the “I” and “This” because the “This” proved to be a mediated universal rather than immediately given. The “I” proves to be universal in the same way the “Now” and “Here” proved to be universal. “Thus, we reach the stage where we have to posit the whole of sense-certainty itself as its essence” (PS, 62).

“Our” positing the whole of sense-certainty as its essence must be an activity of the privileged “we” because only the privileged “we” could have known that this stage has been reached. Commentators who suggest that the activity of we, the phenomenologists is possible by “our” having already achieved absolute knowing interpret this part of the Phenomenology correctly. However, if the activity of the “we” were solely that of the privileged “we,” the dynamic of the “we” that follows becomes difficult to explain. This dynamic begins when the privileged “we” states that “we” the reader must take an active role in pointing out the “Now” or “Here.” This must be done by “us” so as not to “do away with the immediacy which is essential to it. We must therefore enter the same point of time or space, point them out to ourselves, i.e., make ourselves into the same singular ‘I’ which is the one who knows with certainty” (PS, 63).

The irony of the “we” is apparent. Here the privileged “we” instructs the unprivileged “we” to enter the movement of consciousness itself. The “we” splits itself into two opposite extremes, the privileged and unprivileged “we.” This “splitting into two” enables the unprivileged “we” to actively participate in the movement of consciousness, thereby lifting itself out of the stage of sense-certainty and into the truth of perception. Participating at the level of consciousness itself not only insures that consciousness employs its own criterion, but also insures that the reader will experience the transition between the two moments of consciousness within him or herself. Without this experience the reader would not be able to ascend the “ladder” that leads to the standpoint of Science, and the pedagogical function of the Phenomenology would fail.

The movement “we” find ourselves participating in is as follows. “We” point to “Now” but in doing so discover that “Now” is no longer this “Now.” “The Now that is, is another Now than the one pointed to … The Now, as it is pointed out to us, is Now that has been, and this is its truth; it has not the truth of being” (PS, 63). This truth is discovered through our activity. “The pointing-out of the Now is thus the movement which expresses what the Now is in truth, viz. a result, or a plurality of Nows all taken together; and the pointing-out is the experience of learning that Now is a universal (PS, 64, emphasis added). This pointing-out, which is “our” activity, results in an experience that changes the relation between the two moments of consciousness. This experience is the transition from sense-certainty to perception. “By pointing out this bit of paper, experience teaches me what the truth of sense-certainty in fact is … it is a universal. I take it up then as it is in truth, and instead of knowing something immediate I take the truth of it, or perceive it” (PS, 66).

The transition between the two moments of consciousness, which results in (1) a new object for consciousness and (2) a new standard by which to test our knowledge of that object, is experienced by “us” at the same moment it is experienced by consciousness. The dialectical movement between these two moments, a movement which “consciousness exercises on itself,” is what Hegel means by experience (PS, 55). It is only through this movement, and therefore through experience, that pure thoughts become Concepts (Begriffe). The education of the individual, as Findlay points out, is “precisely parallel to the cosmic preparation which has gone on in nature and history.”21 This means that one must have experiences, which for Hegel means that one must participate in the movement of consciousness at the level of consciousness.

Commentators who fail to account for the activity of the unprivileged “we” have difficulty interpreting the participation of the “we” at the level of consciousness. Parry, for example, claims that “the ‘we’ not only views the experience of consciousness, it also ‘inwardizes’ this experience by placing itself in the position of the consciousness under examination.”22 This double function of the “we” is achieved through mimesis, the nature of which enables the “we” to examine consciousness and to participate in its movement without importing its own criteria. With this concept, Parry is able to argue that although the “we” represents the perspective of absolute knowing re-collecting its own coming-to-be, it does not make use of the criteria of Science. The problem of the “we,” i.e., the fact that (1) it appears to refer to the readers of the Phenomenology and (2) it plays a crucial role in the development of consciousness itself to the standpoint of Science, can therefore be solved through Parry's understanding of mimesis. But as I have already shown, the fact that we are the readers and students of the “introduction” to Science and yet play a crucial role in the development of consciousness is not so much a “problem” of the “we” as it is a paradox of learning. Mimesis, as Parry presents it, cannot overcome this paradox because it cannot account for the experience needed if the individual is to achieve the standpoint of Science. The reason it cannot account for experience is that Parry identifies the activity of the “we” solely with that of the privileged “we.” He states that “the ‘we’ does not undergo experience in the narration because its knowledge corresponds to its object.”23 This correspondence is only achieved in the final stage of Absolute Knowledge. If this were true, if “we” already achieved absolute knowing, it would be impossible to account for the educational requirements of experience because these requirements can come about only through an experienced transition from one stage of consciousness to another.

Parry is the only interpreter that tries to make sense of the activity of the “we” at the level of consciousness itself.24 The difficulty in making sense of this activity is mitigated once we view it in light of (1) the paradox of learning as it is found in the Phenomenology and (2) the irony involved with “we.” Irony recreates the dialectic immanent to consciousness for the uneducated reader by splitting the “we” into two opposite moments—a privileged and unprivileged “we.” This “splitting up,” which is reminiscent of consciousness itself, enables the reader (1) to step inside this dialectical movement and experience it for him or herself and (2) to observe the connections between the stages of consciousness that occur “behind the back” of consciousness. This ironic structure, first formulated in sense-certainty, is repeated throughout the Phenomenology. I will briefly look at how it occurs in the next section of “Consciousness”—Perception.

The movement of consciousness has revealed the truth of sense-certainty to be the sensuous universality, a truth that is taken up in the stage of perception. “‘We’ know from our previous experience that both moments of consciousness—that which perceives and that which is perceived—are themselves the universal or the essence, both are essential” (PS, 67). Perception, however, takes only the perceived object to be the essential moment. In order for it to attain knowledge, perception “has only to take it [the object], to confine itself to a pure apprehension of it and what is thus yielded is the True” (PS, 70). The criterion by which it judges its success in apprehending the truth of its object is the self-identity of the object. This self-identity bursts asunder within the dialectic of consciousness, revealing the numerous dissimilarities within the object. Consciousness concludes that these dissimilarities are not evidence of the “untruth of the object—for this is the self-identical—but an untruth in perceiving it” (PS, 70). That consciousness takes itself to be the source of error results in a distinction between the apprehension of truth and the untruth of its perception, a distinction that raises (aufgehoben) consciousness above the truth of perception through its realization that this distinction falls within consciousness. Consequently, the behavior of consciousness “is thus so constituted that consciousness no longer merely perceives, but is also conscious of its reflection into itself, and separates this from simple apprehension proper” (PS, 72).

When “we” consider consciousness “we” find ourselves involved in a movement that has already led consciousness beyond perception. “We” perceive a Thing as a One, but quickly become aware of dissimilarities that contradict its being One. Nevertheless, “the Thing is a One, and we are conscious that this diversity by which it would cease to be One falls in us. So in point of fact, the Thing is white only to our eyes, also tart to our tongue, also cubical to our touch, and so on … We are thus the universal medium in which such moments are kept apart and exist each on its own” (PS, 72). Through this activity “we” come to view ourselves as responsible for the dissimilarities within the One, and consequently perform the same self-reflection that lifted consciousness out of mere perception. At this moment both consciousness and the phenomenologically uneducated individual have traversed the same dialectic. “Our experience, then is this, that the Thing exhibits itself for the consciousness apprehending it, in a specific manner, but is at the same time reflected out of the way in which it presents itself to consciousness and back into itself; in other words, it contains in its own self an opposite truth [to that which it has for the apprehending consciousness]” (PS, 74). This results in the Thing being-for-itself and also for-another. “We” find ourselves lifted (aufgehoben) to the next level of consciousness before “we” even realize it. This lifting is a consequence of “our” own activity; “we” lifted “ourselves” by making the dissimilarities within the One “our” contributions. The One is white to our eyes, tart to our tongue, cubical to our touch. This activity passes from the Subject (One) to the Predicate (white) and back to the Subject in a dialectic movement that changes the Subject. This movement results in the Thing (new Subject) being-for-itself and also for-another, which is now the truth of the next level of consciousness—the Understanding (Verstand).

“Thanks to this dialectic we proceed from thing to relation, from the thingism of perception to the relativity of understanding.”25 The sensuous universality of perception vanishes among the self-reflecting activity of consciousness and “ourselves.” This activity results in an experience that is the transition from perception to the understanding, a transition from sensuous universality to an unconditional absolute universality, which takes as its essential object both “being-for-itself” and “being-for-another” (PS, 77).

The activity of the unprivileged “we” enabled the uneducated reader to participate in the movement of consciousness and to experience for him or herself the transition from one stage of knowing to the next. Hegel is able to achieve this pedagogical task through an ironic use of the “we.” Irony recreates the dialectic of consciousness for the reader because it creates a movement between opposing concepts. The movement I have focused on is the active participation of the unprivileged “we” in the dialectic of consciousness itself, which involves the two moments of consciousness. This, however, is not the only movement experienced by “us,” the readers. There is also the movement between the privileged “we” and the unprivileged “we” which involves “our” recreating the errors of consciousness even though “we” have been informed of these errors beforehand. In “Sense-Certainty” “we” took “immediate knowing” to be our immediate object even though “we” knew sense-certainty's error was to take immediate knowing to be its immediate object. In “Perception” the privileged “we” informed “us” that both the perceiver and the object perceived were the two essential moments, and yet “we” followed consciousness in taking only one of these moments to be essential. The same pattern repeats itself in “Force and the Understanding,” where “we” are initially told that the “unconditioned universal, which is now the true object of consciousness, is still just an object for it; consciousness has not yet grasped the Notion of the unconditioned as Notion” (PS, 79). Ironically, moments after being told this, “we” take the unconditional universal to be “our” object in the investigation.

In “Force and Understanding” “we” continue to play an active role within the development of consciousness. The same is true in the section on Self-consciousness. Whether “we” find ourselves “becoming the Notion,” as “we” do in “Force and Understanding,” or “entering” the dynamics between Life and Desire, as “we” do in “Self-Consciousness,” our activity results in an experience of the transition between the two moments of consciousness. Contrary to Dove's claim that after the first three sections of the Phenomenology (i.e., after “Force and Understanding”) the activity of the “we” becomes the pure act of observation,26 “we” find “ourselves” actively engaged throughout the Phenomenology. Parry's book, which traces the movement of the “we” throughout the Phenomenology, proves this. However, one can still ask why “our” participation in the investigation changes as “we” proceed along the stages of consciousness. Why, for example, do “we” eventually stop actively participating in consciousness at the level of consciousness?

The reason for this first materializes in “Force and Understanding.” In this section, “we” are informed that “we must step into its place and be the Notion which develops and fills out what is contained in the result” (PS, 80-81). Our “stepping into” the movement of Force is similar to “our” involvement in the movement between the “Now” and “Here” of sense-certainty because it results in “our” making one moment of the original dialectic “our” object. By making one moment of the dialectic “our” essential object, “we” repeat the error of consciousness itself, an error that has already been pointed out to “us” by the privileged “we.” This error does not, however, lead to the same kind of activity exemplified by the unprivileged “we” of sense-certainty. “Our” activity in sense-certainty involved our actively pointing-out the “Now” and “Here.” However, in “our” investigation of “Force,” “we” do not actively point-out anything. The reason “we” do not need to actively participate in the movement of Force is “that this movement is nothing else than the movement of perceiving,” a movement that “we” already experienced (PS, 82).

Parry's examination of the “we” throughout the rest of the Phenomenology confirms what I have just illustrated—that when consciousness's movement repeats a preceding experience, “we” do not actively take part in the movement of consciousness so as to repeat our own experience.27 This helps explain why “we” eventually stop taking an active role in consciousness at the level of consciousness itself. Nevertheless, “our” active participation within the investigation continues through a dialectic that obtains between the privileged “we” and the unprivileged “we,” a dialectic exemplified in the following two moments: (1) Each new stage begins with “our” knowing that consciousness is (a) consciousness of some object and (b) consciousness that this object is for consciousness. “We” are then informed that consciousness takes one of these two moments to be its essential object. (2) The unprivileged “we” is then put in a position whereby it follows consciousness in taking one of these two moments to be its essential object of observation. To recall an earlier example, in sense-certainty “we” took “immediate knowing” to be our immediate object when “we” already knew that “immediate knowing” splits itself into two irreconcilable moments. Since the truth that consciousness seeks is the unification of these two moments, “we” knew from the beginning that sense-certainty was destined to fail. This use of irony creates a distinction within the “we” that makes possible a dialectic within the reader—“we” learn the truth, but are unwittingly put on the path of the false so as to rediscover the truth through our own experience. For Hegel, this rediscovery is the education of the individual; it is the recognition of knowledge already existing within the individual. It is important to note that this knowledge comes about through the efforts of the singular individual; it is not given to the individual by Hegel. For Hegel “nothing is known that is not experienced” (PS, 487). In order to know, one must experience; in order to experience, one must participate in the movement of consciousness.

If the Phenomenology is successful in educating its readers, then the dialectic between the unprivileged “we” and the privileged “we” should become narrower as “we” approach Absolute Knowledge. As “we” educate “ourselves,” as “we” climb the ladder to the standpoint of Science, “we” eventually achieve the perspective of absolute knowing—the perspective of the privileged “we.” At Absolute Knowledge the difference between a privileged and unprivileged “we,” a difference that gave rise to the irony of the “we,” should no longer exist. Irony should cease to exist. Hegel, however, provides “us” with one last irony in his final section on Absolute Knowledge.

At the stage of Absolute Knowledge, we are able to understand that “the power of Spirit lies rather in remaining the selfsame Spirit in its externalization and, as that which is both in itself and for itself” (PS, 490). As Verene puts it, “the in itself and the in itself for consciousness that is a for itself, these two moments, are held together by nothing; but they always, that is, by necessity, accompany each other.”28 The immanent movement of speculative thought realized in absolute knowing is a movement made possible by the two distinct moments of consciousness. “Our” education, which recognizes the fact of this distinction, has freed determinate thoughts from their fixity so that we can now give actuality to the universal. Ironically, we were told of this fact in the Introduction. There we were told that “the distinction between the in-itself and knowledge is already present in the very fact that consciousness knows an object at all. Something is for it the in-itself; and knowledge, or the being of the object for consciousness, is, for it, another moment. Upon this distinction, which is present as a fact, the examination rests” (PS, 54 emphasis added).

The Phenomenology of Spirit as a whole, therefore, exemplifies the same ironic structure that is found in the “we,” a structure consisting in the following. First, we are told the truth of consciousness. Second, we are put in a position to discover this truth for ourselves. This last irony completes the education of the individual by showing him or her the standpoint of Science within him or herself; “we” come to know what “we” have already learned. But “we” come to know it through the only process whereby one can come to know. For “Truth,” as Hegel notes, “is not a minted coin which can be given and pocketed ready-made” (PS, 22). It must be earned in the same manner that World-Spirit has earned it; it must be won through a laborious effort along the “highway of despair,” an effort involving patience, activity, doubt, and experience.


  1. G. W. F Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), 50. Hereafter cited in the text as PS followed by the page number.

  2. Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1974), 39 (emphasis added).

  3. J. N. Findlay, “Forward,” Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), v.

  4. Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel's Recollection: A Study of Images in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Albany: State U of New York P, 1985), 22.

  5. Alexander Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 171. See also Kenley Dove, “Hegel's Phenomenological Method,” in Review of Metaphysics 23 (1970): 615-41.

  6. Dove, 616.

  7. Martin Heidegger, Hegel's Concept of Experience, trans. Kenley Dove (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 128.

  8. J. N. Findlay, Hegel: A Re-Examination (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1958), 70.

  9. For a quick reference, see Dove, “Hegel's Phenomenological Method.” To his list I add Alexander Kojève and David M. Parry, Hegel's Phenomenology of the “We” (New York: Lang, 1988).

  10. Findlay, Hegel: A Re-Examination, 84-85.

  11. See Findlay, Hegel: A Re-examination, 104.

  12. Verene, 31.

  13. See Parry, 2; Dove, 628-29.

  14. Kojève, 262-63. See also Georg Lukács, Der junge Hegel: Über die Beziehungen von Dialektik und Ökomonie (Zürich and Vienna: Europa Verlag, 1948), 602-3.

  15. Dove, 627.

  16. Parry, 3.

  17. Dove, 629.

  18. Dove, 627.

  19. Parry, 11.

  20. Dove, 638-40.

  21. Findlay, Hegel: A Re-examination, 85.

  22. Parry, 103.

  23. Parry, 64.

  24. Others have mentioned this activity, but have failed to explain it. See Dove, 638; and Timothy Costello, “Science, Consciousness and the ‘we’ in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit,International Studies in Philosophy 32.2 (2000): 23.

  25. Hyppolite, 115.

  26. Dove, 640-41.

  27. Parry, 144, 156, 181.

  28. Verene, 106.

Rebecca Gagan (essay date June 2002)

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SOURCE: Gagan, Rebecca. “Hegel Beside Himself: Unworking the Intellectual Community.” European Romantic Review 13, no. 2 (June 2002): 139-45.

[In the following essay, Gagan maintains that passages in The Phenomenology of Spirit make important points about the act of scholarly production and the work habits of academia.]


There are undoubtedly some who would see a comparison of a section of Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit with any book with the words “for Dummies” in the title as crude and objectionable. Indeed, in 1969 Allan Bloom declared: “Hegel is now becoming so popular in literary and artistic circles, but in a superficial form adapted to please dilettantes and other seekers after depth who wish to use him rather than understand him” (ix). Bloom's comments, which beg the questions, who owns Hegel? who owns philosophy? and even more generally, who owns thought?, are questions which, ironically enough, inform much of Hegel's work and to which Hegel—unlike Bloom—offers no easy answers. The section of the Phenomenology entitled “The Spiritual Animal Kingdom and deceit, or the ‘matter in hand itself” does, I suggest, function as a kind of insider's guide to the academic community—a what to expect while expecting scholarly production condensed into a few brief pages. It is here that Hegel attempts to articulate the challenges that the subject must endure as he attempts to find a place within the intellectual community. With, for example, the admonishment to “start immediately” and to not wait for a sense of how things will end, for confirmation of the end result, Hegel initiates his discussion of the importance of an investment in activity, in the process over the actual work itself (Phenomenology, §401). One can never know what the “end” result will be since the ends and the means are completely implicated in the process. “Ends” as such are only realized through activity and will, inevitably, produce a result that could not be imagined—and certainly as many scholars know, a result that is far, far different from the initial glimmerings of a work. Hegel's primary aim in this section is to alert scholars and would-be scholars to the dangers of relying too heavily on the product of one's labour for a source of job satisfaction.

Just as Hegel's configuration of the “Absolute as Subject” in the “Preface” to the Phenomenology of Spirit is often understood as the Absolute-Subject and not as the Absolute itself as a subject that is unfinished, “self-moving” and incomplete, so too is it often assumed that Hegel is invested in “the book” and in the results or ends of labour (PS §18-§23).1 For Blanchot, for example, Hegel is the spokesman for “the book” and for the completeness, the finality, and the totality which it represents (Blanchot, 429). Blanchot suggests that if philosophical thought is imaged by a philosopher's relationship to the university, then Hegel's position in a university chair at Berlin guarantees thought produced in conformity with the demands of this “magisterial form” (4). But how then to understand Hegel's statement in this section of The Phenomenology that Kojeve, Lukacs, and most recently Gary Shapiro understand as a commentary on the community of the “man of letters”, that the work “obtains its truth in its dissolution” (§405)? Hegel in fact declares here that the work is something “perishable” which only “exhibits the reality of the individuality as vanishing rather than achieved” (§405). For Hegel, the work is not a coming to presence of the subject, not a model of completion or of absolute knowledge, but rather a sign of its absence. In his recent article on Hegel and academic work, Gary Shapiro summarizes this notion of the vanishing work as follows: “Finished works are vanishing moments, ephemeral fulfillments at best. [As a scholar], if I thought to realize myself in such a work, I can be thrown into a profound self-doubt, for I see that I've not only misunderstood the character of work but must have had a faulty conception of myself to have expected completion and reconciliation from writing” (228). It is perhaps for this reason, the avoidance of self-doubt and disappointment, that Hegel himself had such trouble “finishing” his work.

Much to the frustration of the majority of his editors, both now and then, Hegel perpetually digresses, supplements, and defers the act of finishing. For example, in negotiations with a potential publisher over the manuscript that would become The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel was contracted to receive eighteen florins per completed page with payment coming once the book was half finished. But, as Terry Pinkard notes in his recent biography of Hegel, determining when his book was half finished proved an impossible task for Hegel, who could not see the end of his work (227). The publisher eventually lost patience and refused payment until the complete work was submitted. That Hegel found difficult the task of delineating a half-way point in a project that perpetually exceeded its own boundaries is not surprising—not least of all because of the fear and reluctance that undoubtedly overwhelmed him at the moment he was asked to part with a piece of work which in his mind would never be finished. For Hegel then, it seems, it is in fact not “the Book”, the work-object which counts, but rather the work-activity, the principle of work, the “matter in hand” (die Sache selbst). Far from insisting upon the inaccessibility of the spirit (Geist) of the work, or the fixed nature of the work, Hegel is moving towards Blanchot's notion of “unworking”, that is, towards an understanding of the work as that which cannot be revealed or fully realized since it is always in process. In Blanchot's words: “To write is to produce the absence of the work (worklessness, unworking [désoeuvrement])” (424).

In The Philosophy of Mind, Hegel discusses the vanishing character of externalizations of the self, the “incorporeal corporeities” which are not at all unlike the products of academic labour. After discussing laughter and crying, Hegel moves on to a discussion of the voice about which he explains: “[It is] a material in which the internality, the self-existent ideality of the soul receives a fully correspondent external reality, a reality which immediately vanishes in its arising, since the propagation of sound is just as much the vanishing of it (§87)”. In a very strange but fascinating section of the Phenomenology on Physiognomy and Phrenology, the science of how the skull and the face express (or fail to express as Hegel argues) the inner self, Hegel suggests that “speech and work are outer expressions in which the individual no longer keeps and possesses himself within himself, but lets the inner get completely outside of him, leaving it to the mercy of something other than himself” (PS §312). The idea that one's words or one's labour will always be subject to repossession by the Other, gets to the heart of the self-doubt, the fear of criticism which accompanies academic production and about which Hegel writes in the Phenomenology:

The work is, i.e., it exists for other individualities, and is for them an alien reality, which they must replace by their own in order to obtain through their action the consciousness of their unity with reality; in other words, their interest in the work which stems from their original nature, is something different from this work's own peculiar interest, which is thereby converted into something different


But while the subject is never fully revealed in “the Book”, and while those who confront the Book find it to be an “alien reality” in which only their own interests are expressed, in which their own needs are met, Hegel interestingly suggests that it is precisely for this reason that the work remains important to the community more generally. To explain this I need briefly to return to Hegel's discussion of the voice. In the section of the Philosophy of Mind entitled “Anthropology”, Hegel explains that this “vanishing voice”, this incorporeal corporeality is one of the most important externalizations of all because excessive talking at, for example, a funeral of a loved one, allows for an objectification of pain which minimizes sorrow and comforts the mourner. These kinds of externalizations are for others perhaps more than they are for oneself. Through activity one is for oneself but the products of this activity, whether it be tears or an academic text, are for a community who will find themselves not you in these externalizations. Hegel seems to me to be suggesting that these externalizations are a literal self-sacrificing through which one is then able to connect with people. (§401)

In The Philosophy of Right Hegel suggests the importance of the product of work (and the reproduction of the work) to others in the intellectual community as property that “exists for other external things and is connected with their necessity and contingency” (57). In this sense, the academic community participates in the production of works with the understanding that a work is always already incomplete and that it will exist only as an empty container which others will come to possess and from which they will find and fuel their own work-activity. The academic community knows that the “matter in hand” is where it's at, that the work-activity is what counts. But Hegel's privileging of the “activity” of intellectual work is not only a result of his belief in the impossibility of realizing oneself in “the Book”. It is also, I think, Hegel's contention that activity is a Habit, (Gewohnheit) a way of “having or holding the self” (from the Latin “havour” meaning “to have”) that helps one become an integrated community subject. The word Gewohnheit contains within it the verb “to live” (wohnen), which reveals much about Hegel's own use of the word Habit. For Hegel, habit is a means through which the intellectual can live in, or dwell with, ideas despite the “vanishing” nature of the work. Habit is a space of mediation (of which I will say more later) that dulls the sense of loss. But as you'll see, Hegel's relationship to habit is extremely conflicted. If in the Phenomenology, Hegel seemingly charts a dialectical progression from a life of sensation to a life of habit, he is also, I argue, quite skeptical about habit's ability to produce “effective” people.


On the way to becoming a community subject, in this case a subject in an intellectual community, one must become integrated and move out of the realm of pure sensation or pure feeling (which Hegel configures as insanity) and into a life of Habit. As Hegel explains in the Philosophy of Mind, this integration into civil society is a “painful transition” that is “very distressing” and one in which hypochondria is not easily escaped by anyone (PM,Zusatz §196). Habit is the means through which one attempts to own one's thought. It is a way of coping with the illusions of ownership that I've just discussed, of striving to “be at home” with oneself. As Hegel explains in the Philosophy of Mind:

Habit is often spoken of disparagingly and called lifeless, casual and particular … and yet habit is indispensable for the existence of all intellectual life in the individual, enabling the subject to concrete immediacy, and “ideality” of soul—enabling the matter of consciousness, religious, moral, etc., to be his as this self, this soul, and no other


Habit gives one the sense of being-at-home-with oneself and with one's ideas. It is a way to live in ideas without, on the one hand, slipping into the realm of pure sensation where one only feels and never has a sense of self-possession, or on the other, into what Hegel calls a state of “hyphochondria” where one is too inward, obsessed with one's subjectivity, unable to come out of oneself—unable to leave the home so to speak. Schiller, a contemporary of Hegel's and, as Rebecca Comay has recently suggested, a powerful influence on Hegel's thinking, describes the former state as follows. First, though, it seems important to note that for Schiller the life of pure sensation and its opposite, pure rationality, are tempered by the category of the Aesthetic which approximates Hegel's notion of Habit in its capacity as a mediating sphere. In a certain sense, Schiller's Letters on Aesthetic Education and Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit are parallel texts in their search for mediating categories. In Schiller's words:

His personality is suspended as long as he is ruled by sensation, and swept along by the flux of time … For this condition of self-loss under the dominion of feeling, linguistic usage has the very appropriate expression: to be beside oneself, i.e., to be outside of one's own Self … To return to self-possession is termed, equally aptly: to be oneself again, i.e., to return into one's own Self, to restore one's Person

(Letters, 80-81).

To be “swept away” by sensation, then, is to leave one's dwelling, to neglect or refuse the home that Habit has built and to be beside oneself. But if, on the one hand, living in a world of sensation means, in part, never to be at home, to live elsewhere, everywhere, to be a transient, there are certain forms of insanity which, on the other hand, are induced by being too comfortable at home, by a reluctance to leave home. As Hegel explains in a letter to a friend in 1826:

I define hypochondria as the affliction that consists in the inability to come out of oneself. I would know of many ways to come out of oneself, but the one I would advise is to reverse the position in which you place this demon relative to activity, not waiting on the demon's departure in order to allow this activity to occur, but rather driving away the demon precisely through activity

(Hegel: Letters, n519).

While Hegel doesn't discuss hypochondria directly in his quite lengthy discussion of insanity in the Philosophy of Mind, his definition of insanity in his letter to Daub is very similar to his characterization of at least two forms of insanity which he does identify—distractedness and idiocy. Distractedness, in particular, is a form of insanity that is not uncommon among scholars who “desire to be universally esteemed” and in the process become immersed in their subjectivity and cannot come out of themselves (PM,Zusatz, §408). The inability to come out of oneself results in an “unworking” of another kind—that is, an inability to act which is, nonetheless, a kind of intense work or labour itself. When Hegel suggests to Daub that he “knows” other ways to come out of oneself, he is undoubtedly referring to the following “cures” which he outlines in The Philosophy of Mind:

[One] who held himself to be dead, did not move and would not eat, came to his senses again when someone pretended to share his delusion. The lunatic was put in a coffin and laid in a vault in which was another coffin occupied by a man who at first pretended to be dead but who, soon after he was left alone with the lunatic, sat up, told the latter how pleased he was to have company in death, and finally got up, ate the food that was by him and told the astonished lunatic that he had already been dead a long time and therefore knew how the dead go about things. The lunatic was pacified by the assurance, likewise ate and drank and was cured

(PM,Zusatz, § 408).

In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault labels this technique “Recognition by Mirror” and suggests it as just one of several normalizing “cures” for the insane (262). While I don't have time here to engage Hegel's own relationship to Pinel and to the various other physicians working in the hospitals in France at the time, Hegel was au courant with the latest medical knowledge and, since his own sister suffered a mental breakdown, he was strongly invested in treatments for mental illness.2 The most interesting “cure”, however, and one that Hegel suggests as the most efficacious, is the placing of the patient on a see-saw—the see-saw movement induces giddiness in the patient and loosens the fixed idea (PM,Zusatz, §408). I will to return to this image of the see-saw and its relevance to Hegel's work in a moment. First, I want to turn to Hegel's own account of the hypochondria that apparently stayed with him for a period of 10 years from the age of 27-37—the period during which he was writing the Phenomenology (Harris, 265). You'll notice that Hegel's description of his own hypochondria reveals not a subject who has too tight a grip on his subjectivity, but rather, a subject who is beside himself, not holding onto thought but losing his train of thought altogether. This letter is a reply to Hegel's dear friend Windischmann who, like Daub, wrote to Hegel complaining of a “profound hypochondria and semiparalysis”. Hegel's reply is as follows:

Health and serene mood—indeed a stable serene mood—are called for in no other field of work more than in this. Consider yourself convinced that the frame of mind you depict to me is partly due to this present work of yours, to this descent into dark regions where nothing is revealed as fixed, definite, and certain; where glimmerings of light flash everywhere but, flanked by abysses, are rather darkened in their brightness and led astray by the environment, casting false reflections far more than illumination … I know from my own experience this state of mind or rather of the reason [diese Stimmung des Gemüts oder vielmehr der Vernunft] where one has once got oneself through one's interest and the intimations that go with it into a chaos of phenomena, and where one is inwardly certain of the goal but not thoroughly in possession of it … I have suffered from this hypochondria for a couple of years to the point of losing my grip altogether [bis zur Entkraftung]; Every man, surely, has in general such a turning point in his life, the nocturnal point of contraction of his being, a narrow strait through which he forces his way, emerging confirmed and certain of his secure self-possession, of the security of ordinary everyday life, or, if he has already rendered himself incapable of fulfillment in that way, with the security of a nobler inner life. Continue onward with confidence. It is science which has led you into this labyrinth of the soul, and science alone is capable of leading you out again and healing you

(Letters, n158).

Just as the gentleman who thought he was dead was cured by being confronted with death, the cure for a hypochondria brought on by study is more study. This notion of inoculation is a reiteration of Hegel's belief in activity's curative effect. Because you'll never know where you're going or how to get there exactly (this of course would be to see the means and ends as separate from the beginning) you might as well just do it. It seems that for the academic, one must be careful not to hold on too tightly to one's subjectivity, or to an idea, but at the same time one must find a way to be-at-home, to have enough of a hold on oneself to be able to think without the burden of excessive feeling. The image of the teetering see-saw seems apt because it raises the possibility of a balanced off-balancedness. A self-possession that is not too possessive so as to become self-absorption, distraction or hypochondria.

But does one ever really leave this state of self-loss behind, or is it simply managed somehow through Habit? More importantly, does Hegel really believe that Habit is the end of self-loss, of those wanderings outside the self, of the being beside oneself with giddiness or with grief, of the strayings from home in which one does not know which path leads home or if one even wants to go home at all? Does Habit set one free? As Hegel explains in the Philosophy of Mind: “Although, on the one hand, habit makes a man free, yet, on the other hand, it makes him its slave … In habit the human being's mode of existence is ‘natural,’ and for that reason not free” (§410). As a “second Nature” habit is precisely not natural and thus inevitably restricts being. As he briefly suggests in The Science of Logic, habit, like certain forms of memory or action is mechanistic and divested of spirit. There is “lacking in it the freedom of individuality and because this freedom is not manifest in it, such action appears as merely an external one” (711). With this we've come full circle, it seems, and back to the tension between activity and the externalization of thought.

Hegel is uneasy with the idea of Habit because it threatens to empty activity of its self-realizing power and limit the emergence of individuality, the becoming of the subject, which process encourages. In this sense, Habit might produce conformity of thought and thus an intellectual community in the very worst sense of the term—a community in which people are too comfortable at home. While Hegel does suggest in the Phenomenology that the community subject must come to realize his/her place in relationship to the universal, which is to say, how a particular kind of work connects to the whole (an idea which Schelling discusses in his On University Studies (1798)), I don't think that Hegel is asserting that the transition, or birth, through the “narrow strait” into habit is an easy one and that one should, even if they could, disavow the realm of sensation. Hegel seems to suggest that the kind of “effective” person brought about by habit is one who is stripped not only of spirit, but also of the chance to be, themselves, a work in process. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Hegel returns again and again to a questioning of habit and its imposed regularity, and to his search for a community, or a sphere in which production exists for production's sake—a production that is, as he explains in the Aesthetics, “free activity”. In the introduction to the Aesthetics, Hegel suggests that an escape from the “dark inwardness of thought”, the “conformity to law”, and the “fetters of rules and regularity” is made possible through the production of art. It is a place where we seek peace and enlivenment and forget the shadow realm of the Idea (5). Art is a space of unworking, of the unfinished. It is, as Hegel suggests later, where one might leave behind the “world of finitude” (150). But there remains, of course, a desire (one which I have been trying to counter) to read Hegel as a “master”—as one who is always in control and moving always towards an end. As H. S. Harris emphasizes in his Hegel's Development Towards the Sunlight, “Hegel suffered certainly, and he had fits of black depression; but he was always, probably, as much the master of himself as any man can reasonably hope to be—a fact which Hölderlin recognized when he called him a ‘ruhig Verstandesmensch’ (calm, matter-of-fact person) and spoke of his cheerful attitude” (270). Harris doesn't mention that Hölderlin is said to have tried to comfort Hegel during one of his depressions by saying “soon you'll be the old man again”. Can there not be a Hegel who is at once “at home” and also “beside himself”? To be beside oneself as a scholar is to allow the discovery that one is not necessarily a part of an intellectual community that struggles along together with the shared habit or investment in activity. Perhaps if there is an intellectual community at all, it is not a community of readers, not a community of authors either, but a community of production, of “vanishing texts”. Remember Hegel reaches out to his friends, but he says that there is nothing he can do to help them. Only study, only more thinking will help.


  1. I am grateful to Tilottama Rajan for this insight.

  2. See Jacques Derrida's Glas (1986) for a discussion of Hegel's relationship with his sister. Also “Pinellian Psychotherapy and Hegel's Sister” in Hegel: The Letters, 406-23.

Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice. The Infinite Conversation. Trans. Susan Hanson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Bloom, Allan. “Introduction.” Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Alexandre Kojeve. Ed. Allan Bloom. Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

Comay, Rebecca. Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the Impossibility of Memory. (Forthcoming)

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Harris, H. S. Hegel's Development: Towards the Sunlight 1770-1801. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1972.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Trans. T. M. Knox. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1975.

———. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

———. Philosophy of Mind. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971.

———. Philosophy of Right. Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1958.

———. Hegel: The Letters. Trans. Clark Butler and Christiane Seiler. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

———. Science of Logic. Trans. A. V. Miller. New Jersey: Humanities P, 1989.

Pinkard, Terry. Hegel: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Ed. and Trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1967.

Shapiro, Gary. “Notes on the Animal Kingdom of the Spirit.” The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader: Critical and Interpretive Essays. Ed. Jon Stewart. Albany: SUNY P, 1998. 225-239.


Principal Works


Further Reading